You can’t help but feel nostalgic while watching Close the Coalhouse Door. And it’s a nostalgia, I must admit, that I didn’t anticipate I’d feel when taking my seat in the Playhouse. It stems from the contrast between the then and now, and in particular, between the thriving mining community of back then and its disintegration into the nothingness of today.
The contrast between different strands of time is effectively realised in the very first scene, a scene which features an abandoned terrace and a glamorized billboard. It’s hard to ignore the penetrating gaze of Meryl Streep in her guise as the Iron Lady; the advertisement juts out incongrous to the dark, smoky red-brick terrace lying behind it. But this cardboard cut-out is the only reference we are offered as to Thatcher’s collision with the pitmen, which is a shame.
Streeps’s advertisement is just one of Lee Hall’s revisions, made in attempt to bring Plater’s 1968 show ‘up to date for its modern audience’. And although Hall includes many contemporary gags and witticisms, we are left with an overall feeling of incompleteness. The problem with this play isn’t in the acting, or in West’s directing, but lies in the vast historical gulf between the play’s publication and the events of today. No amount of impressive multi-roling or catchy folk anthems can detract from the absence of Thatcher. It’s an absence deafening in a play concerned with the history of mining, and is an absence which acutely dates the piece, despite Hall’s best efforts.
Nevertheless, there is something in the accelerated ride through mining history, set amongst a family gathering, which makes for satisfying, thought-provoking viewing. We are hurtled through time in a montage featuring the ghosts of mining past: from 1834 and the forced labour of six year olds, to the growing discontent of the mining union, to the between wars chaos- all pinned into place by the then ‘present day’ of 1968.
The Brechtian vein allows for a history lesson, satire, drama and musical to be fused together and cumulates into a piece of consistently entertaining theatre. Designer Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set cleverly allows for the duality of strained domestic drama and industrial stories to occur simultaneously, the strong cast in their element as they dynamically leap from one scene to the next. Jane Holman, the matriarch of the household, especially stands out by her comic timing and pompous performance as Lord Londonderry. The cast expertly weaves Alex Glasgow’s haunting folk songs into the drama, underscoring the loss of both the mining industry, and its corresponding community, a community of parlour music, tradition and strength.
After eighteen years since its first major revival, Lee’s punchy new material came at a good time, but I would have liked more of it. Bringing Close the Coalhouse Door up to date for a 21st century audience is a laborious task for any well-intentioned revivalist, especially since the mining industry wasn’t deemed as dying in the 60s so much as losing popularity. Despite the incongruity, generated from overlooked events, this production is a quality piece of theatre which celebrates the mining legacy.