Hard hats off, first of all, to writer Beth Steel and director Edward Hall for marking the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike with an epic drama that looks to convey the immense import of this pivotal episode in Britain’s history: one with whose legacy we still live. In dramatic terms it offers material almost on the scale of a Shakespeare history play: the clash of ideologies and of two implacably opposed leaders (prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers); a seismic shift in economic policy and industrial relations; a raft of arguing politicians; pitched battles and thousands of ordinary men. Steel and Hall tackle it accordingly, with a vivid, kaleidoscopic staging that roves from Whitehall to the picket line but that is set mostly, and rightly, down a pit. The result is a bold, intelligent, compassionate drama, but one that toils somewhat under its own weight.
It is at its best when with the miners. Ashley Martin-Davis’s superb set turns the whole auditorium into a mine: the audience is ranged round a mesh wire floor; the action takes place on three levels and a juddering cage lift takes the men down into the earth. The noise, danger, dark and heat are evoked, as is the rough camaraderie and solidarity between men who depend on one another for safety. Steel introduces us to the unique world underground through two young novices, sympathetically played by David Moorst and Ben-Ryan Davies. The job is dirty and dangerous but Steel conveys the dignity of men with a skill and Hall responds with a robust, muscular, physical style. A cracking ensemble is led by Paul Brennen’s bullish “Colonel”. The way the men are gradually split up, impoverished and demoralised by the outside forces driving the strike is deeply distressing to watch.
Above ground, Steel brings in many of the chief players to sketch in the context and strategies – hardline chairman of the National Coal Board Ian MacGregor, conflicted Conservative minister Peter Walker, flamboyant agent-provocateur David Hart, even economist Milton Friedman. But by trying to embrace the whole picture, the play strains to stay animated. Some scenes explain what happened rather than dramatise it fully and the production begins to feel bitty and uneven. It’s an admirable attempt to encompass the interplay of personalities and politics, cold theory and harsh reality that defines this crucial, painful conflict, but it struggles with the sheer size of the enterprise.