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Mr Monkey sees Queens of the Coal Age at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Venue : Royal Exchange Theatre
Start date: 28th June 2018
End date : 28th July 2018
Visit date : 3rd July 2018
Kate Anthony as Anne and Eve Robertson as Elaine (Production photo by Keith Pattison)
Anne (Eve Robertson) grits her teeth while Elaine (Eve Robertson) seethes. (Production photo by Keith Pattison)
Mr Monkey looking at the poster for Queens of the Coal Age
Mr Monkey looking at the electronic poster for Queens of the Coal Age.
Click above to see Mr Monkey with the Cheadle Hulme School bee.

Mr Monkey took the 192 into Manchester, and scurried along to the Royal Exchange Theatre for the press night of Maxine Peake's play, Queens of the Coal Age. Before he took his seat he saw some large bees decorated by schoolchildren as part of the Bees in the City project. Mr Monkey expects Manchester to be a hive of these bees by the end of the month.

In 1992 the government announced the closure of 31 of the remaining 50 deep coal mines in the UK, with the loss of 30,000 jobs, prior to the re-privatisation of the coal industry. In 1993, a group of four women from the Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures group posed as teachers to join a tour group and then refused to go back to the surface. They stayed underground for several days before agreeing to leave. Many years later, Maxine Peake interviewed the four women and wrote a radio play, Queens of the Coal Age, based on the conversations. This aired on BBC Radio 4 in November 2013. This production is an adaptation of the radio play, and is a co-production with the New Vic of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Anne, Dot, Lesley and Elaine talk their way into the colliery, and refuse to leave. After an argument with what passes for authority they find a hut within the mine and barricade themselves in. They come to terms with the conditions they are going to live in, argue with each other, worry about their families, talk about their problems, take comfort in the support of the miners (passed on by a miner delegated by management to give them the bare minimum of supplies necessary to dodge the Court of Human Rights). Eventually they agree to leave, defeated but unbowed.

The set is quite dramatic at times. It starts as a circle of battered yellow metal grid, with a large square in the centre. The square has chains rising from each corner, so it's not too much of a suprise when it doubles as the pit cage. Once the women are down the mine the metalwork is removed creating the hut in which they the live during their occupation.

Mr Monkey hadn't been quite sure what Queens of the Coal Age was going to be like (he missed hearing the radio version) and he was pleased when it turned out to be very funny, with a strand of humour even in the serious bits. The episodic nature of the play gave Kate Anthony (Anne), Jane Hazlegrove (Dot), Danielle Henry (Lesley) and Eve Robertson (Elaine) each some time centre stage, though Anne did perhaps dominate overall (possibly because she was Anne Scargill, and the only character with a surname). They are all excellent at displaying a mix of confidence, bravado and fear. Conor Glean as Michael, the miner assigned as go-between by the management, is a fine balance to all the white working class solidarity. John Elkington is suitably hapless as the manager who lets them all down the pit in the first place, moderately evil as the higher manager who tries to drive them out, and supportive as the miner who escorts them out and has the job of switching the lights out after the colliery is shut.

John Elkington as Des, Danielle Henry as Lesley, Eve Robertson as Elaine, Jane Hazlegrove as Dot and Kate Anthony as Anne. (Production photo by Keith Pattison)
NCB duty manager Des (John Elkington) in the process of being duped by Lesley (Danielle Henry), Elaine (Eve Robertson), Dot (Jane Hazlegrove), and Anne (Kate Anthony). (Production photo by Keith Pattison)

Mr Monkey thoroughly enjoyed this production of Queens of the Coal Age and recommends it to anyone who wants an evening of earthy female solidarity aginst a background of doomed struggle.

Queens of the Coal Age runs until 28th July 2018.

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