"Northern Stage/Live Theatre"

 A theatre review by Hugh Jaeger 19 June 2012


Oxford Playhouse, 19 June 2012  

Some people can harmonise personal fulfilment, family, job, colleagues, nation and — if they have one — community. The rest of us either try to fulfil some of those demands by sacrificing others, or live in unresolved tension between them. 

Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow’s 1968 musical Close the Coalhouse Door, drawing on material by Sid Chaplin, explores those sacrifices and tensions at a brisk pace, rapidly switching between realism and caricature; humour and pathos.  Plater, Glasgow and Chaplin were all socialist writers from industrial Northeast England but their humanity transcends time, location, politics and class. 

The musical is set in the Northeast, where it premiered when coal was one of the UK’s biggest industries and employers.  Most UK power stations ran on coal, and Britain’s reserves could last another three or four centuries.


Today Britain still burns a lot of coal but two thirds is imported. Only five British deep mines still produce coal. Yet Coalhouse still matters. 

Dangerous work demands reliance between colleagues.  For most characters in Coalhouse, colleagues and community come first and family and individuality must fit in as best they can.  The few characters who have either escaped or are wrestling with those values drive Coalhouse’s tension and development. 

Generations proudly followed each other into the pits but miners candidly told me that even modern mining was so dangerous and dirty that no-one should have to do it.  Plater tests this in a classic tension between brothers: Frank (Jack Wilkinson) has left home for university; John (Paul Woodson) has become a miner but is torn and frustrated. 

Miners’ women did as they were told because “On the surface, we want our relationships simple”.  This is challenged by Ruth (Louisa Farrant), a sociologist and feminist whom Frank brings home from university. Many of her lines seem prescient: the year-long 1984–85 strike and subsequent pit closures disempowered tens of thousands of miners, so wives and partners came to the fore not only opposing pit closures but also holding communities together. 

Coalhouse predated two decades of turmoil and decline: from the miners’ strikes of the early 1970s via the year-long 1984–85 miners’ strike to the pit closures and privatisation of the early 1990s.  Lee Hall bookends the musical with enough new material to bring the story up to date, without adding too much or departing too far from Plater and Glasgow’s original work. 

Not everything in Coalhouse fits well.  Lee Hall’s new prologue scene is less effective than his poignant epilogue.  The Expert (Tarek Marchant) is a chorus-like character who explains parts of the context, instead of it being signalled in the dialogue.  Geordie (David Nellist) tells old jokes about mothers-in-law that grate now even if taken as retrospective irony. 

Sudden changes of era and mood to cover events from two centuries of mining history jar at first.  Cast members play smaller roles as well as their main parts, and some of these are caricatures that contrast with the naturalism of their main roles.  But I rapidly got used to the quick-changes, thanks to the talented cast’s speed and versatility in changing roles. For example, two babies are rapidly and effectively conjured on stage: one by Farrant using only a cloth; the other by Nellist just sitting on the floor and brilliantly transforming his demeanour. 

Scenes are made and changed by designer Soutra Gilmour’s deft use of a revolving stage, interpreted through Rob Brown’s sound and audiovisuals and James Farncombe’s lighting.  The production has neither curtains nor need for them.  Pit scenes are effectively conjured from little but light and sound. 

Director Samuel West draws strong performances from Northern Stage’s ensemble cast.  Woodson, Farrant and grandfather Thomas (Nicholas Lumley) may be the strongest but others have their moments. 

At one point Wilkinson turns into Eric Burdon with grandmother Mary (Jane Holman), The Expert, Jackie (Chris Connel), the Vicar (Adam Barlow) and other cast members become his backing band!  This is the only song to use pop; Glasgow’s other numbers make good use of a 1950s and 60s folk style that at times reminded me of Ewan McColl. 

Coalhouse’s programme booklet is highly informative, and its bold design uses a black and red typeface on a yellow background that recalls the badges and stickers for the 1984–85 strike.  All it fails to mention is who voice-coached the cast’s impeccable Geordie accents — and who designed the booklet! 

Congratulations and thanks to Live Theatre for putting Northern Stage’s production on the road, and to Oxford Playhouse for giving it a stage in Oxford. 

Performances continue in Oxford until Saturday 23rd June; the coalhouse door will close after a week at the Theatre Royal, York 26th – 30th June.  That doesn’t give long for you to try to book a seat and see one of the last few performances.  But you should. 

© Hugh Jaeger 2012 

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