Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Coalhouse Door re-opens

I have written in an earlier post about my teenage exposure to repertory theatre - walking from Newcastle's Haymarket Station a couple of miles to the Flora Robson Playhouse to see whatever production had just opened - and especially at my delight and inspiration in seeing the original 1968 production of Alan Plater's 'Close the Coalhouse Door' with music by Alex Glasgow and featuring such great North East actors as John Woodvine, James Garbutt and (Bolton-born, but with an Auntie Bella in Gateshead) Bryan Pringle. The play was not only locally successful but briefly went to the West End courtesy of Brian Rix, and turned up on TV as an unforgettable Wednesday Play with most of the original cast.

The original cast of 'Close the Coalhouse Door'

 A scene from the 1969 TV production with Dudley Foster as The Expert, Geraldine Moffat as Ruth and Alan Browning as John Milburn

The Flora Robson Playhouse was demolished in 1971 to make way for a new road. The new home of the Tyne Theatre Company was the University Theatre, a much shorter walk from the Haymarket. A couple of renames later, with some refurbishment and a new front entrance at the side, the theatre currently houses Northern Stage. Last night I was among a packed audience in the theatre enjoying a revival of 'Close the Coalhouse Door'. It was a memorable evening of laughter and tears.

Alan Plater, who updated the play a couple of times for earlier revivals, sadly died in 2010, but the minor updating for this production fell into the capable hands of Lee Hall (of 'Billy Elliot' and 'Pitmen Painters' fame). Hall gives us two superb images  - at the beginning with a poster of Meryl Streep as Mrs Thatcher given extra devillish quality when two miners' lamps are shone through her eyes; and at the end with a slick transformation of the whole cast into call centre workers to demonstrate the death of the mining industry.

There is a wonderful revolving set too by Soutra Gilmour, and Sam West's direction is lively and gorgeously irreverent, with the fourth wall regularly and gleefully punched through by actors whose quick-fire repartee includes the audience at every excuse for an ad lib.

Mostly though it's Plater's script, Glasgow's music, and the players' interpretation of both that make the show so engaging you could hug yourself and them and the guy in the next seat who you don't know but who is obviously enjoying the experience as much as we all are.

Chris Connel as Jackie, Jane Holman as Mary in the 2012 Northern Stage revival 

I have rarely seen a cast so versatile. Not only could they switch instantly from their anchor roles in the play to produce hilarious cameos of key figures on both sides of the miners' struggle (including a Harold Wilson so simply and effectively sketched that it brought spontaneous laughter and applause from the audience at first glance); they could also sing, dance and play music at a level on a par with their acting - guitars, bass, drums, piano, flute, penny whistle, violin, concertina, washboard and some other instrument which seemed to be some form of autoharp. They didn't always need traditional instruments either - one of the best percussion accompaniments came from Mary Milburn's knitting needles as she danced around tapping them on various parts of the set, while bottles, glasses and packing cases were all used to great effect; a veritable scratch orchestra. The songs were variously stirring, foot-tapping, comic and poignant. Of the latter Ruth's lament for a lost baby had me in tears, while the various treatments of the title song 'Close the Coalhouse Door' summed up all the anger and bitterness that lies behind the story as it is unfurled on stage - anger which we are rightly left with in spite (or perhaps because) of all the fun and laughter we've enjoyed at the Milburns' golden wedding celebration.

At the end of the play we returned from the auditorium past a sombre display of black and white pictures of the 1984 miners' strike and the official retaliation, shot on the streets in the colliery villages of County Durham. The bitterness evident in those pictures and at times on stage is not all we take away, however, for Plater's story is fundamentally life-affirming, and we have this great generous cast to thank for reminding us of the great generous heart of our mining community. It is as much to cherish as to grieve.


No comments:

Post a Comment