Queens of the Coal Age – Royal Exchange Theatre

Britain in the 1980s was a period of civil unrest, political and industrial dispute. The most prominent of these was the Miners’ Strike in 1984, where working-class mining communities protested against the closure of coal mines, which jeopardised hundreds of thousands of jobs, and an entire way of life. Violent scenes erupted as the police arrested the striking miners and the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was labelled as “the enemy within”. Arthur Scargill was the leading figure amongst these disputes, but importantly, his wife, Anne Scargill, also fought against the pit closures.

The Queens of the Coal Age Royal Exchange Manchester Theatre Review Maxine Peake
Picture Credit – Keith Pattinson

With other members of the Women Against Pit Closures, she entered mines under pretence and protested within the mine, staying there for days on end, fighting for the preservation of jobs, communities and injustice against the working-classes. As I was born in 1986, I didn’t live through this turbulent time in British history so I was vastly unaware of this period of unrest. As a northerner, the devastating consequences of the mine closures are still evident in everyday life, for example, the north/south divide. However, until I watched Maxine Peake’s play, I didn’t understand the gravity of such events on the culture and lives of the working-class communities in northern England.

Queens of the Coal Age is a new play written by Maxine Peake, telling the true story of the Women Against Pit Closures, namely Anne Scargill and her fellow activists Elaine Evans, Betty Cook and Lesley Lomas as they take over a pit and protest against the closure of the coal mines.

Despite its setting, this play feels contemporary. It is refreshing to see a new play with four outstanding roles for powerful, inspirational women, written and directed by equally exceptional women. They are the foundation that this play sits on and each character that Maxine Peake creates is wonderful. Peake gives each character beautiful, moving monologues which are juxtaposed brilliantly with rib-aching comedic scenes. The four lead actresses are sublime and made their characters naturally believable and funny, but also vulnerable at the same time. It is an incredibly accomplished play, with superbly rounded characters.

Due to my age, I didn’t understand some of the jokes, as they referred to cultural icons of the 1980s, most of whom I am unaware. However, Queens of the Coal Age has some truly hilarious moments in it. One can imagine how hilarious the toilet situation can get with four women stuck in a coal mine, particularly when one has a potentially explosive substance hidden in her knickers. Maxine Peake effectively juxtaposes these moments with powerful moments describing racism, police brutality and the death threats Anne Scargill faced as a consequence of being married to a prominent activist. It is a delicate balancing act, which works perfectly. It kept me constantly engaged with the play and the characters within it.

The Queens of the Coal Age Royal Exchange Manchester Theatre Review Maxine Peake
Picture Credit – Andrew Billington.

The Royal Exchange Theatre is in the round so naturally, there is a minimalist set, which allows the audience’s attention to be focused on the wonderful characters of this play. Steel plating creates the floor, which is then ripped up to reveal a pit. Staging this play in the round helps amplify the claustrophobic ambiance of its setting, as does the dark, dim lighting. Elliot Griggs‘ superb lighting design for Queens of the Coal Age fully utilises the lights on the workers’ helmets. They provide much of the illumination, lending naturalism and earthiness to the production. This is particularly effective when the cast of extras; male miners, congregate for scene changes. These are some of the play’s most striking moments.

Queens of the Coal Age educates younger generations, like myself, about the devastating consequences that closing coal mines caused, such as high levels of unemployment, the destruction of communities and a greater division between the classes. What particularly struck me was how many generations of families were employed by the mines, meaning their closure meant the demolition of a complete way of life.

The play filled me with admiration of the extraordinary women who protested in appalling conditions to protect their communities. By the end of the production, I was moved to tears in sheer awe of the power, bravery and determination of these exceptional women. I was the only one in the auditorium who gave a (very teary) standing ovation, but this play thoroughly deserved it.

The Queens of the Coal Age is a powerful story which needs to be told, particularly in these times of political unrest. There is nobody better for telling this story than the incredibly talented northern soul, Maxine Peake. I was left moved, educated and entertained by her brilliant play and can’t wait for her to return to the Royal Exchange Theatre!

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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