It could be argued that the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 was the closest thing to a civil war seen in these islands since 1651 and, fittingly, Beth Steel’s compassionate new play views the Strike as a conflict in which, as in all wars, the greatest losers were the fighters and their families. The chief protagonists, Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill are never seen, although some insight into the political background is given in discussions between the “wet” Energy Secretary Peter Walker (Andrew Havill), Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley (Paul Cawley) and the Chairman of the National Coal Board Ian MacGregor (Michael Cochrane), who is seen as a man with a genuine mission to rebuild the mining industry, not to destroy it. It is refreshing that Steel does not promote the simplistic view favoured by delusional socialists that the Strike was only about the evil witch Thatcher crushing the noble workers; she is clear that Britain at that time was on the brink of economic ruin as a result of two decades of Trade Union domination and that mining and most other industries were in need of urgent and drastic reform to make them viable; she sees the miners as being led blindly by politically motivated Union leaders who called the illegal Strike at a time when conditions were least favourable to them and then prolonged the agony of their members by remaining intransigent well after the point when defeat had become a certainty. However, the play’s political content is only there to provide background, because Steel’s chief focus is always on the miners who were caught in the middle, bound by tradition and by their loyalty to each other. The first half is a vivid and detailed account of working in a coal mine, arduous, hazardous and unhealthy; the staging is starkly realistic, with metal cages descending from above the stage to well below it and, under Edward Hall’s superb direction, the miners moving around constantly as they perform their daily labours. Songs (composed by Simon Slater who also plays the Pit Manager), help to illustrate life in this hellish underworld. In the second half, the stage is cleared and we are taken through key points in the Strike itself, with pitched battles, extreme hardship and indignity, family members set against each other and, inevitably, the bitter pill of defeat. We see dirty tricks played by both sides, most notably those involving David Hart (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), a wealthy eccentric residing in Claridge’s, who is sent to infiltrate Nottinghamshire miners. The acting in the roles of the miners is exceptionally strong, but, strangely, all Steel’s characters are male and we see no signs of the women who suffered alongside their men. This production is theatre on an epic scale, thrilling, enthralling and often deeply moving.
Performance date: 2 July 2014