Queen Coal (Studio Theatre)

The transformation of Sheffield theatres’ Studio for Bryony Lavery’s new play on the miners strike creates an “intriguing sensory experience”

Entering the Studio theatre last night was a new and intriguing sensory experience. Walking through a working mine with sound effects, burning smell, and signs such as ‘Hard hats must be worn in this area’ set the scene for the central motif of this innovative play from Bryony Lavery.

Justine (Julia Ford) and Maggie (Kate Anthony) in Bryony Lavery's Queen Coal
Justine (Julia Ford) and Maggie (Kate Anthony) in Bryony Lavery's Queen Coal
© Mark Douet

The crucible had been split into two tiers with some seating on the actual stage in the form of sofas and dining chairs to create a feeling of being in the family’s home for the first row. The family smoking, the simplistic but atmospheric lighting and the smell of coal and burning created a multidimensional viewing experience.

I mistakenly thought that the play might be set within the mining industry, but instead we were presented with the aftermath of the mines’ demise and experience the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death through the eyes of one Sheffield family in a mining village.

Although I am not of this view myself, I would advise against Thatcherites attending this production as the theme is vehemently anti-Thatcher. Featuring a Guy-Fawkes style effigy of the matriarch, and singing the controversial anthem ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ may be offensive to those sympathetic to her beliefs.

The play follows the reunion of Ian, an ex-miner, his sister Maggie and his ex-wife Justine as they meet again for the first time since the mining strikes tore their community apart.

Justine abandoned Ian and left their two children with him. Maggie is mouthy and opinionated and as soon as the news is heard sets out to organise a party to celebrate Thatcher’s death including the bonfire and burning effigy. Justine now lives in London, and the other family members receive her as posh and alien.

Justine has become a protester, such is her passion to drive change, and realises how mistreated the miners were and how powerless their movement was; being seen as troublemakers responsible for the country’s demise. The strong family bond remains throughout the disagreements and hostility in parts, and proves that Yorkshire grit, pride and community spirit can prevail despite the bonds that attempt to break them.

Directed by Robert Shaw Cameron, the play brings to light the emotion and gallows humour left behind in former mining communities and the legacy the troubles have left. It will be moving and poignant for those who lived through the 1992 strikes, and for those younger viewers who learnt of the strikes through Thatcher’s death in 2013.

Queen Coal runs until 22 November 2014 at the Studio Theatre, Sheffield.