The playwright Lee Hall is best known for the movie and musical Billy Elliot and his more recent work The Pitmen Painters.
But his latest project revives a classic 1968 musical play, Close The Coalhouse Door, written by radical playwright Alan Plater and set among miners in the north east of England.
The new version played to full houses at Newcastle and is now on national tour. It leaves the original almost intact but adds material by Lee Hall giving it a contemporary context.
Close the Coalhouse Door was revived through the enthusiasm of its director Sam West, Lee says, but as they worked on it they both realised the play is not a historical pageant or lesson about the mining industry.
“It’s more about unionising and strikes, and how the struggles of one generation often don’t bear fruit until many decades later,” Lee told Socialist Worker. “To revive a play about working class people organising and striking is always timely.”
Coalhouse is different in style to Lee’s previous work but touches on related themes, he adds. “Coalhouse is more knockabout. It uses the traditions of music hall—an inherently working class art form—to tell the story.
“The Pitmen Painters is a straight play, but they are essentially asking the same questions about socialism and the state. Both have a sceptical attitude to the Labour Party. Billy Elliot owes more to Coalhouse. It’s a big, populist musical that is funny, sentimental and polemical in turns.”
Coalhouse was one of Alan Plater’s first big successes and it opened up space for voices like Lee’s, he says. “It meant you could make populist art for working class people that didn’t need to peddle an anodyne politics.”
Lee grew up in a working class home in the east end of Newcastle. He went to the local comprehensive school where he was “fortunate to be taught by teachers who had been politicised in the early 1970s”.
This is where he discovered the stage, he says. “I took part in the Youth Theatre Movement where politicising the kids was a stated aim.”
Lee knew Alan Plater personally and the revival is partly a tribute to the pioneering writer who died in 2010. “Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s it was hard not to absorb his work if you turned on the telly. It was an immensely important tool of education and politicisation.”
Coalhouse evokes a “strong folk memory” in the North East, says Lee, not least because of its songs. Written by singer-songwriter Alex Glasgow, they include the unforgettable “As Soon as this Pub Closes” and “The Socialist ABC”.
“Alex Glasgow tackles politics with wit and humour, in dialect and with such an unusual voice,” says Lee. “He’s been a very important model. His songs are brilliant, moving, unique—learned yet direct, sophisticated yet unpretentious.”
Lee notes that the original 1968 version of the play is critical of Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister at the time, but “hopeful and positive about the bigger political project”.
This optimism is something he wanted to underline. “I did not want to add a litany of failure to the history of progress. It’s important to celebrate resistance and remind people of a proud past of struggle.”
For details of the national tour go to closethecoalhousedoor.co.uk