Saturday, 14 April 2012

Close the Coalhouse Door

There's a tunnel being dug from the past to the present, and a condemned house is restored to life for two and a half hours. This is to give away just one of the conceits in Lee Hall's revision of Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow's Sid Chaplin-inspired musical Close the Coalhouse Door, first staged in 1968, and now again playing in Newcastle, at Northern Stage and produced by Northern Stage and Live Theatre. Director Samuel West has assembled a cast of all-rounders who can all, in the idiom of the period of the play's birth, hold down a chord. West himself emerged on to the stage at the play's opening to introduce himself and musical supervisor Sam Kenyon as joint understudies for Tarek Merchant, unable to take on the role of the Expert as he is recovering from the removal of his appendix.

In 1968 the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham were facing uncertainty as the Labour government's rationalisation policy cut a swathe through the collieries; the industry looked likely to be burned away in the white heat of technology, but the coal itself was to remain underground. Song and story relate a hundred and thirty years of history as foundation myth, as prophetic figures such as Thomas Hepburn and Martin Jude point the way towards a present where the pitmen finally share the fruits of their labour; but Utopia is a doubtful achievement, and the celebration of the past is a dubious festivity if it offers no way of taking tradition and effort forward. It's a very twenty-first century comment to make, and most of the characters would have no truck with psychobabble, but Close the Coalhouse Door presents a culture sustained by communities held together and held captive by generations of abuse. The escape offered to the youngest generation of pitmen, represented by brothers John and Frank, by feminist sociology postgraduate Ruth (a compelling performance by Louisa Farrant) leaves one chill given the fate of many of the factories of Teesside and Consett steelworks.

This production still needs some work; the second act needs tightening and the final array of songs could do with breaking up and some disentangling 1968 and 2012. However, on the evidence of tonight's performance this is easily within the competence of everyone involved, and with the rounds of pit closures still uncomfortably within living memory, Newcastle offers an audience who know they are inside the joke. In a period when the pitmen have all but gone from Westminster, and when Britain too often thinks of heavy industry in terms of grassed-over slag heaps, the foundations of our society in the blood and bone behind the coalhouse door deserve this invocation as a reminder of the lives worked and lived and often lost underground, too wretchedly honoured (if one might excuse this reviewer's sentimentality) by the union leaders and politicians of recent decades alike.

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