Socialist Worker

Queen Coal: Powerful production shows despair and hope in pit villages

by Dave Gibson
Issue No. 2429

Justine and Maggie in Queen Coal

Justine and Maggie in Queen Coal

Bryony Lavery’s powerful play Queen Coal gets its inspiration from the celebration of Thatcher’s death in South Yorkshire pit villages.

Most of the action happens in the build up to the burning of a Thatcher effigy on a bonfire in a pit village. It is clearly clearly modelled on the event when Thatcher's "coffin" went up in flames in Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire. 

There are just three characters on stage, all activists in the strike. There's ex-miner Ian and his ex-wife Justine and his sister Maggie, both leaders in Women Against Pit Closures.

Justine left her husband and the village for London after the defeat at Orgreave, and Thatcher’s burning brings her back to the village for the first time. She had been very close with Maggie who, 29 years later, still feels betrayed by Justine’s sudden unannounced departure. The incendiary conflicts between the two women dominate the play.  

The impact of Thatcher is centre stage too. She destroyed their community, and broke their lives and relationships. Justine and Ian’s grown-up children’s lives are broken too; their son is a drug dealer and their daughter Lauren’s life is marked by uncertain relationships and unfulfilled dreams. They remain estranged from their mother.

The three characters are united in their enduring hatred of Thatcher and taunt her effigy. Yet when Maggie puts on the Thatcher mask she speaks in Thatcher’s voice, and the effigy too becomes chillingly real with the mask, and Justine’s cashmere jumper, on.

Justine was politicised by Thatcher and the strike. She has been an activist since leaving the village, most recently in the Occupy movement, yet she no longer believes in the power of workers to change things. 

The set is full of fire symbols. Ian’s house floor is covered with cinders, a burning brazier flares in flashback scenes from the strike, and its flame draws Justine back to the village in 2013. Lavery has her sing Blake’s “Jerusalem” in snatches throughout the play, including “bring me my bow of burning gold.” The fire is not only destructive but symbolises their anger and desire to fight back.

Lavery’s play conveys the devastation that Thatcher wrought on mining communities and their justified hatred of her. That sense is heightened by an imaginative set, and powerful acting.  There is despair, but also hope.

Written by Bryony Lavery. Crucible Theatre, Sheffield S1 1DA. Until 22 November.


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Tue 11 Nov 2014, 15:26 GMT
Issue No. 2429
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