Close the Coalhouse Door

Tue 19th – Sat 23rd June 2012

reviews

Thomas Stell

at 02:53 on 20th Jun 2012

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1disagrees

In spite of Lee Hall’s new adaptation, Alan Plater’s 1968 play on the mining industry remains firmly in 1968, and from that it gains nothing. It is a sometimes funny, occasionally moving display of weak nostalgia for a time and place I do not think are worth being nostalgic about.

The narrative is the history of the coal mines in northern England, and it is told in a series of episodes and musical numbers. The medium is a family in a 1960s mining town, its members taking the parts of union leaders, prime ministers, strikers and industrialists in these sequences, and in between playing a story of life in County Durham. At home, Mary (Jane Holman) runs the household, living with the ageing Thomas (Nicholas Lumley), full of tales from his mining days. He is the link to most of the historical scenes, while the young Frank (Jack Wilkinson), who left the town for university and now returns with his fellow student and girlfriend Ruth (Louisa Farrant), lets our attention be drawn to ideas of tradition and of being held prisoner in a community. The older John (Paul Woodson), still a “pitman” and seemingly attracted to Ruth, provides most of the drama in the story’s present.

A comparison with Theatre Workshop’s “Oh, What a Lovely War!” suggests itself – both of course are political and left-wing, but more notably the way in which “Close the Coalhouse Door” gives an account of the mining industry is not dissimilar to the way in which the former shows us a history of Europe 1914 to 1918. The acting is very expository – the players often speak directly to us and though they do have characters in the 1960s action, they can also shift freely between the likes of Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George and Baldwin. Very Brechtian, then, especially as the first scene, actually in the present, is this. The house which is to be the focus of the piece is now boarded up, a monstrous face of Meryl Streep as Thatcher erected in front of it. To this building, which, flanked by scaffolding and capable of being rotated to show inside and out, will be our set all the way through, comes a miner from the past and an “expert” (Tarek Merchant). They shoo away a wary security guard, take down the chipboard from the windows and introduce themselves. The expert describes his role – he will act as a “Brechtian device” and tell us all the background information we need. Not just Brechtian then but consciously so. Brechtian squared, one might say.

And this is really the problem. To no character – and the script is to blame as well as the style – can we feel close enough to take an interest in. There are no complicated personalities, nor do those on stage have any symbolic, mythical quality. David Nellist as a geordie can sometimes be funny, and Thomas’s story of an underground explosion is atmospheric, but one gets bored, and at three acts and two intervals, the play isn’t short.

The drama then, lacks substance, and the songs don’t make up for this. Music hall inspired numbers appear in dull arrangements, sung in an inappropriately belty, modern West End and Broadway style. Given this material, it was hardly surprising that none of the actors were very remarkable, except perhaps Jane Holman for her bad singing voice (a very unattractive, grainy contralto).

It may be that good art will come from the story of the miners, but this production has made me doubtful of that. Certainly it shows us hell, the oppression and poverty of the northern working classes, and the life of a miner toiling far from the sunlight in dreadful conditions, being pretty horrific, but one still doesn’t see the point. There is no tragedy, so no catharsis, and it does not show us a way out of hell – for hell is ugliness and none of the characters have any conception of beauty. Their rebellion has as its end not a Morrisian socialist idyll but a slightly higher wage. In the distance looms a grim Soviet future, still surrounded by the appalling mining works, from which art and heroism are just as absent as they seem to have been from County Durham, 1968.

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Comments

Eleri Thomas; 22nd Jun 2012; 10:16:30

Unfortunately, it appears that the above review has stemmed from a fatal misunderstanding of the essential message and concern of Alan Plater's Close the Coalhouse Door, giving a false impression of the beauty, comedy and talent that underlies this 2012 version of the 1968 classic, performed this week at the Oxford Playhouse.

Perhaps this emerges from the reviewer's own belief that Britain's mining communities are "not worth being nostalgic about". Apparently they are not worth understanding, either. The final paragraph completely misunderstands the references being made in this production. Apparently mining Britain was defined only by "oppression and poverty", "dreadful conditions". This condescendingly "pretty horrific" illustration of "hell" demonstrates how, despite the fact that the production is based on Sid Chaplin's tales and posited as a nostalgic recollection that very clearly demonstrates the working-class pride of the mining community in the face of capitalist intervention, the reviewer was too busy looking at the grubby hands of "John" (Paul Woodson) to consider that there might be more to life that the ascent from poverty. Thus the final scene, inserted by Lee Hall in this production, is NOT attempting to suggest "a grim Soviet future, still surrounded by the appalling mining wroks, from which art and heroism... are absent". Rather, it laments the death of that working-class community and integrity through its replacement by the new call centres, against a backdrop of those mines being destroyed in the gradual decline of the British mining industry.

The reviewer's objections are seemingly endless. Firstly, he is devastating on the topic of characterisation. It is always, surely, difficult to develop complex characters in a musical piece with a cast of not just 10, but most likely as many as 40 historical cameos. And yet as far as I observed, there were a number of examples of convincing characterisation. Comical yet solemnly nostalgic was grandfather Thomas (Nicholas Lumley), and the tension between brothers John, Frank (Jack Wilkinson), and Ruth (Louisa Farrant) was articulately developed, the forced devotion of Frank to his family and to the pit evolving more strongly as Ruth became more clearly defined as sympathetic to but essentially excluded from that community. The only weak link in the cast was that of Farrant, who was stilted and perhaps a little too overtly broadway in places, this production requiring a softer approach, but the outstanding performance from Jane Holman as grandmother Mary made up the deficit.

On to my other major objection to this review, then - I felt strongly that Jane Holman's "unattractive, grainy contralto" was undoubtedly the strongest amongst a cast of outstanding musicians. I would not regard the arrangements as "dull", but rather, their re-working by Sam Kenyon was often innovative (most especially in the final number, where counter-melodies by flute and guitar were woven around the central theme). And the demands of having all of the music performed live on stage by talented instrumentalists did not in any case show itself as being too onerous a task; I was constantly surprised at their polish in rhythm and intonation. 

I'm not writing a review, so I shan't wax lyrical on the other remarkable aspects of the production (although I'll give a nod to the set design as being excellently ergonomic, with some great bunting) but suffice to say that this absolutely deserved the plethora of four and five star reviews that have been distributed thus far. Weaker reviews such as the above perhaps stems from the fact that mining history is not for everybody. Having said that, the production has the potential to enthral audiences beyond those enthusiasts alone.

"Brechtian squared", however? Please, somebody save us. 

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