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Reviews Sheffield Published 7 November 2014

Queen Coal

Crucible Studio ⋄ 3rd - 22nd November 2014

Awakenings.

John Murphy

It’s something of a cliche to say that a play’s set is almost a character in itself, but it’s true of Max Jones’ design work for Bryony Lavery’s new play, Queen Coal. The intimate Studio space of the Crucible has been totally transformed by Jones into a large subterranean living room, to which audiences are led down long, dusty corriders, with ‘danger’ signs plastered everywhere, miners’ helmets hanging on the wall and the constant, ominous hum of machinery in the background.

In the theatre itself, there are large, comfortable (if somewhat ‘vintage’) sofas and armchairs at stage level arranged around a bed of embers, the domestic world and the surrounding landscape intertwined. It’s an effective way of pulling the audience into the sort of family drama that many will already be familiar to many people, particularly in and around Yorkshire. 

Queen Coal is set just after the death of Margaret Thatcher, but while politicians in London are planning a state funeral for their departed leader, communities in mining villages which had been destroyed by her policies 30 years beforehand are planning celebratory parties, they are burning Maggie in effigy.

Lavery’s play focuses on one South Yorkshire family who were torn apart by the effects of the strike: former miner Ian, his sister (ironically also called Maggie) and his ex-wife Justine. Justine and Maggie were best of friends back in the 80s, but after the Strikes she felt unable to stay, to continue life as before, so she left for London; this is her first visit home. Much of the power of Lavery’s writing comes in its exploration of the rift between the two women; the play is as much a tale of friendship as of politics, the two interlinked.

Lavery skillfully shows exactly how destructive the strike was, both on communities and the local economy. The first thing that Justine looks for as a navigation point when she arrives home is the pithead: “where is it? Why is there an Aldi there instead?” she asks herself. As we find out more about Justine, we learn she went on to be involved in the Occupy protests in London and Lavery draws a clear, hard line from the early politicisation of the miners’ wives to the protests of the present day.

Maggie and Ian, by contrast, seem almost stuck in the past, still shellshocked by the events of 30 years ago. Maggie is still a firebrand, visibly invigorated by the news of Thatcher’s death, and pouring all her energy into dressing up the effigy (which sits eerily and facelessly on stage throughout most of the play, looking on as if personally witnessing the effect of her legacy on the family). Yet she’s insular and suspicious of outsiders, as demonstrated by her hostile reaction to Justine when she returns home: one of the few times that the characters slip into stereotype. 

Maggie and Justine are beautifully written characters, and it’s easy to invest in their relationship, especially when so richly played by Kate Anthony and Julia Ford. Anthony has the more vocal role, a sense of anger and resentment constantly bubbling just below the surface, but Ford in turn is elegantly restrained as Julia: you can almost see the regrets and memories etched on her skin as she tries to reintegrate with her estranged family.

David Hounslow, as Ian, has much less to work with; he’s almost secondary to the story and he’s arguably less of a presence as a result. The anger which is so palpable in Maggie, so fresh and still so raw, is absent in him, and it’s only in his climatic breakdown – which in a coup de theatre sees him stalking around under their feet, sunk in the pit, his buried pain surfacing. For the most part the play focuses on the relationship between the two women, the drama and humour of it.

Director Robert Shaw Cameron mostly handles the play’s shifts in time and tone well. The lighting, by Jason Taylor, and the disorientating sounds and smells of the set add to the almost-immersive nature of the production. The play feels under-developed in places: it never really tells us why Justine decamped to London, other than a general disillusionment with life and politics and her lack of voice – the relationship between her and her ex-husband is harder to get a handle on than the two women’s friendship, the deep bond that existed between them.

While it feels unsatisfying in places Queen Coal is a thoughtful and palpably, necessarily angry play, one obviously close to Yorkshire-born Lavery’s heart. It is also bound to have a particular resonance in this part of the country, both for those who lived through the strike, and for a younger generation who are, in ways large and small, still feeling the effects. 

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John Murphy

John is the former editor of, and current contributor to, musicOMH. He lives in Sheffield, in the shadow of the famous Crucible and Lyceum theatres, and also reviews in nearby Leeds and Manchester. John is also a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and can be often be found in one of Sheffield's comedy clubs, laughing like a madman.

Queen Coal Show Info


Directed by Robert Shaw Cameron

Written by Bryony Lavery

Cast includes Kate Anthony, Julia Ford, David Hounslow

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