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Queens of the Coal Age
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
ONE of the lasting legacies of the 1984-85 miners’ strike is the liberation of women in mining communities across the country. Grandmothers, mothers, wives and partners of miners recognised this dispute was very different from the struggles of the past — it was a battle for their communities’ very existence.
Via the Women Against Pit Closures movement, they were catapulted into the vanguard of the fightback against a repressive state determined to smash their men and their way of life. There was no going back and, when the strike ended, women carried on the struggle against the relentless closure of mines in the decades that followed.
In 1993, on the eve of the closure of Parkside colliery in Lancashire, four amazing women bluffed their way into the pit and occupied it for four days and Maxine Peake wrote a wonderful radio play celebrating these courageous women which she has now adapted for the stage.
Although a celebration of the women’s bravery, Peake — a very fine playwright as well as a great actor — has not created some misty-eyed, nostalgic look at a bygone era. She has captured the very essence of what drove these women to overcome their fears and head half a mile below ground.
They are no caricatures. Funny, nervous, tense, frightened and constantly squabbling, beneath it all, they are working-class women who care passionately about their families and communities. Giving up on a fight for justice is not an option.
Peake not only draws fully-rounded characters but places the action within the context of the times. Without hitting the audience over the head, she gently introduces the reality of a world where misogyny and petty racism are not uncommon.
Bryony Shanahan’s fine direction keeps the action moving while Georgia Lowe’s stage design is wonderfully evocative of the oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that lies deep within the pit. Kate Anthony (Anne), Jane Hazelgrove (Dot), Eve Robertson (Elaine) and Danielle Henry (Lesley) are outstanding as the four women. They have all the pent-up frustrations and anxieties of women under siege yet their humanity and deep-rooted friendship is palpable.
This is our history, our heroes, and it is fitting that their story is brought to life in one of the finest theatres in the country.
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