It's grim and it's gritty, yet it's packed full, too, with uplifting fun, sparkle and laughter. Wonderfully acted, wonderfully sung, wonderfully written, We're Not Going Back is an all round triumph for the Red Ladder Theatre Company and writer, ex-Chumbawamba guitarist, Boff Whalley.
Via skilful interweaves of humorous narrative song, anecdote and banter, we are taken back to 1984-5 when, in the fictional South Yorkshire pit village of Carston, the lives of three very different sisters take a sudden turn for the extraordinary and are changed forever. The reason? Two of their partners are miners, the third a police cadet.
The miners' strike brought devastating hardship and conflict not just to the men but to families and entire communities. The wives, suddenly thrown to the forefront, had their own struggles and this is their story, told through the experiences of three sisters.
Just three characters appear onstage - older sister, Olive, staid, restrained, pious, maternal; eighteen-year-old Izzy, black-clad college dropout, Morrissey-mad and miserable, and the bubbly, fun-loving Mary.
The sisters must fight to hold their relationships and communities together, becoming active, tireless organisers and leaders. In the process, the sisters learn the value of empowerment, determination and adventure as they discover their own capabilities, so that, once liberated from their old roles, even when the men return to work, for them there's no going back.
As the strike progresses, the prayerful, demure Olive becomes emboldened chief agitator for "Women Against Pit Closures", 'delivering' her church's collection to the cause while struggling to cling to her faith. Izzy's ostracised boyfriend, Dean, is forced to rethink his career with the police force if he hopes to keep her, while Mary, forced now to work, starts to feel her feet and climb the ladder to a whole new world.
While there's no stinting on graphic detail and tragedy, there's no wallowing in self-pity wither. Brave, light-hearted optimism shines through direst adversity, bringing hilarity and belly laughs from start to finish.
Enhanced by the keyboard and vocal skills of musical arranger Beccy Owen, the dynamism and momentum never flag. As the Cast stage revolves, action moves smoothly, under Rod Dixon's direction, from humble front room to soup kitchen, Kwik Save fish counter, meeting hall, bus and to a cabbage field, raided by torchlight to fill the desperate, hungry bellies even of those who hate cabbage.
Thanks to the talents of Victoria Brazier, Stacey Sampson and Marie-Claire Seddon, the interaction between the three sisters is full of vibrant, natural spark and bounce, and their fine solo voices blend deliciously, too, in three-part harmony. Joined for the encore by Owen, their magnificent rendition of Washing the Miners' Clothes brings the house down.
This is top quality musical drama, exceedingly good and thoroughly uplifting. Viva Red Ladder!