It is near impossible to hear rhyming couplets without thinking of Dr. Seuss, or bad war poetry. Done thoughtlessly, it can feel simultaneously infantile and pompous, as sensible syntax gets horribly contorted to fit a reductive scheme. Done right, though, it can feel dynamic, down to earth, and most importantly, natural.
Writer and actor Danny Mellor nails it, for the most part. Owning the rhythm and the language, he bookends his vivid play with snappy verse sections – then cheekily undercuts his own opening sequence, joking about the relief on the faces of his audience. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not all like that.’
A one man, one chair, one pint show, Undermined follows a group of Yorkshire colliers through the arduous, acrimonious, year-long Miners’ Strike of 1984. Depicting a sizeable cast of characters, Mellor switches fluidly between personas while keeping each one clear and distinctive. Amongst them there’s the likeable, reliable narrator Dale; stolid union organiser Billy; and Johnny, the slightly deranged one with the lisp.
As the story unfolds and the strike drags on, the play’s early, exuberant energy gives way to grinding helplessness and a quietly unfolding tragedy. When things get grim – and they certainly do – it feels like we’re a world away from joyful descriptions of drunken nights down the miner’s welfare, or tales of packed cars full of picketers sneaking past police cordons. An unexpected segue into Dexy’s Midnigh Runners’ ‘Come on Eileen’ is just one of several moments of spot-on deadpan humour straight out of the best Britcom tradition.
Throughout it all, Mellor skilfully handles the subtle shifts in tone. A bundle of sweaty energy, he bounds around the stage, sometimes flashing a cocky grin, sometimes hunched tearfully over his beer, sometimes staging a solo punch-up like Edward Norton freaking out in Fight Club. Director Ben Butcher, meanwhile, just about reels in all the sparky hyperactivity, allowing the narrative to flow.
This is a passionate, promising, and angry play, which digs a little deeper than the spirited, character-driven format might suggest. Mellor examines the lasting social impact of the strike – the legacy of the government’s disregard for communities, their pursuit of a policy of divide and conquer which needlessly left profound and lasting scars. His observation that ‘I still know families ‘round here that don’t speak’ feels particularly bitter, particularly pertinent to our current climate of deepening social division.
A timely reminder of the importance of solidarity and community spirit, Undermined is a bold piece of storytelling driven along by a punchy performance (and fine 80s songs).