Few playwrights generated so much warmth or so consistently found the comic side of human nature as the late Alan Plater. It might seem odd, therefore, that his finest stage play is not a surreal comedy about power struggles on the Tripe Exchange or a nostalgic play with music about a wartime all-girls band and a cross-dressing deserter, delightful though The Fosdyke Saga and Blonde Bombshells of 1943 are. Instead it’s an uncompromising piece of socialist agit-prop about the struggles of the pitmen of the North East, except that Close the Coalhouse Door is also a very funny play, typically full of humanity, and draws on two different, though complementary, talents. Sid Chaplin’s grittily poetic prose underlies much of the play and occasionally breaks out into the open and Alex Glasgow’s wonderfully tuneful and atmospheric songs combine anger and humour.
The new production by Northern Stage and Live Theatre, Newcastle, adds a fourth creative element. How do you revive a play, written in 1968, which deals with the betrayal of the miners by successive governments when everyone knows that the mining industry was destroyed in the 1980s and 1990s? The answer lies in bringing in Lee Hall to update the script. He does so with the utmost respect and the apparently impossible ending works surprisingly well: Hall finds a typically Plater-esque blend of humanity and irony and there’s a great song, “It’s Only a Story”, to send everyone out sad and happy at the same time.
Close the Coalhouse Door combines a story, not especially original, of a golden wedding celebration and two squabbling grandsons with a glorious cartoon-strip of the history of the mining industry. Soutra Gilmour’s set is pitched a little too much towards the domestic for my taste (I seem to recall something more abstract in 1968), but it is simple and effective. Samuel West’s direction negotiates the changes of tone seamlessly and he is helped by some excellent actor/singer/musicians: Tarek Merchant, especially, does great work on piano and accordion. Sam Kenyon’s musical adaptation includes an Animals pastiche, but more typically uses improvised percussion and multiple guitars.
The cast of nine forms a terrific ensemble, even though individually the younger characters don’t register all that strongly. Chris Connel, Nicholas Lumley and David Nellist are a fine comic trio: Connel’s Union man has understated authority, Lumley combines grandfatherly sincerity with a sense of mischief and Nellist proves (as Alan Plater knew) that old gags are like jewels – it’s the setting that counts!
Close The Coalhouse Door runs at The Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield until 26 May.