Royal Exchange, Manchester – until 28 July 2018
Playing at her spiritual home, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Maxine Peake’s play about women and the mines is both a political corrective and a highly entertaining night out. Fresh from playing Winnie on the same stage in Beckett’s Happy Days, Peake steps off the boards and into the rehearsal room. She tells the story of a protest by four women who, in 1993 during a wave of pit closures, occupied Parkside Colliery for four nights in protest. They were members of Women Against Pit Closure, a pressure group forged in the Miners’ Strike a decade earlier, and one of their number was Anne Scargill, the wife of Arthur himself.
Peake has chosen a perfect historical moment for reexamination. The events of the Major era only remain vivid for those who have reached middle age, and the time is ripe to understand the enormous social shifts generally associated with the 1980s, but still underway in the 1990s. She focuses on a moment when the focus was, unusually, on women rather than men. As Anne points out, can you imagine what it must be like sometimes being married to man called King Arthur. Each woman has her own perspective, strengths and weaknesses, and reasons for spending four nights in the cold. Together, they keep each other going and find meaning in a protest that, on the face of it, might seem futile.
The core cast – Anne (Kate Anthony), Elaine (Eve Robertson), Lesley (Danielle Henry) and Dot (Jane Hazlegrove) – play out highly convincing relationships as they veer from hilarity to despair. The four women are excellent comic actors, and the sometimes farcical nature of their protest creates genuinely funny moments. Peake also works through the wider issues surrounding mining, protest and political opposition with consummate ease. The lightness of touch in her writing means that discussions of, for example, the volatile future for ex-mining communities, with few constructive opportunities to direct the energy of young men, seems highly prescient.
Bryony Shanahan’s direction makes the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round stage the natural home for a play set in a mine shaft. Peake has an exceptional ability to communicate potentially dry debate in an entirely human way. Queens of the Coal Age is the latest in a body of Manchester-based, politically progressive work that continues to grow in importance.