“It’s only a story,” sing the characters at the end of Lee Hall’s adapted version of Close the Coalhouse Door, Alan Plater’s affectionate portrayal of a mining community in the north-east of England.
When it was first staged in 1968, this musical play’s honesty and humour made it a huge hit with the people it represented, luring many miners into the theatre. For them, this was no story; it was their world, made vivid with great writing and stirring music. Today, with UK coal mining and the communities that depended on it mere shadows of their powerful past selves, the challenge is to ensure that the play’s timeless humanity, and our conclusions about the fate of those communities since pit closures, are not engulfed by the history it recites.
In this regard, this new production, a collaboration between Northern Stage and Live Theatre, both Newcastle-based, is helped by superb casting. Under director Samuel West, the actors are thoroughly convincing in the play’s sudden shifts between pathos, lyricism and comedy. And they do justice to the fine music of Alex Glasgow and the prose of Sid Chaplin, both north-easterners whose innate feel for their region shone through in their collaboration with Plater.
The set works well. A terraced house façade, above which looms the skeletal framework of pithead winding gear, pivots to create, on one side, a simple street, on the other a cosy living room.
Cosy is not a word ever applied to Billy Elliot, Lee Hall’s seminal work about a boy’s yearning to dance set against the grim background of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. Nor to Pitman Painters, his theatrical triumph with Live Theatre, although it too drew on historical reality.
In this production, Hall is loyal to his friend and mentor Plater, who died in 2010. Hall describes his additional material as “keyhole surgery”; in particular he has enhanced the role of Ruth, the outsider who challenges John, the young miner, over his ambivalent attitude to his identity. Only in John, whose inner struggles recall miner Oliver Kilbourn in the Pitman Painters, do we see real depth of character.
For a fleeting moment towards the end, Hall propels us into 2012; the result is both comic and uncomfortable. Otherwise, we must draw our own conclusions about what happened after the mid-70s, when the play ends. This is the prequel, not the sequel, to Billy Elliot.
Until May 5, then touring. www.northernstage.co.uk