Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Last Seam - Review - Northern Stage

The Last Seam
Cast at Northern Stage
27th Sept 2018

Written by Garry Lyons
Directed by Daljinder Singh
Produced by Deborah Rees

Cast:  Cathy Breeze, Ray Castleton, 
David Chafer, Jamie Smelt, Emma Tugman

Over the past year I have listened to the conversations around shipbuilding and the loss of our once great industry. The Last Ship and Launch Day were staged. I came to Launch Day and listened to the stories and saw a little piece of history brought to life, and loved it. But - you know there's got to be a but - the Coalfields girl in me was just a little bit - just a smidge - disgruntled that the other great industry of the north seemed to be forgotten. So when I saw that there was a play about mining coming to Northern Stage I stuck my hand straight up for the chance to review it! Finally, the mining was getting its moment in the limelight. I hoped that the miners would be given as honest and sympathetic a treatment as the shipbuilders had received. Coalmining will forever be tainted with the horror of The Strike. It elicits emotional and passionate responses in people. Even now decades later the mention of the strike has a polarising effect. There is no middle ground and the wounds have not healed - they linger, mostly hidden, like a piece of shrapnel under the skin, until someone jars it and the old pain flares up. Would the Last Seam capture all of that? Would it show us an honest portrayal, or tabloid sensationalism?  

Cast's production centres on the closure of the Hatfield Main Colliery in Doncaster. One of the last three deep seam mines in the UK. In 1993, almost 10 years after the strike, British Coal ceased production and the mine was passed through a series of private companies, many of which went into administration, Finally, a loan of £4million from the National Union of Mineworkers enabled the production to move to a new face. The mine should have been safe till Summer 2016 - but after a change in carbon tax and withdrawal of Government funding the mine closed in 2015 with just two weeks notice. Four hundred and thirty men were laid off. How does a community survive when the very life breath is taken from it? 

The Last Seam is the story of the miners, their wives and families, and their community. It is built up from the stories listened to and recorded by the writer Garry Lyons. He says in his introduction to the play that he changed very little of the words - merely wove them together to build the play.  And because of this the play is honest, it holds together with integrity and compassion. It is emotional, there is anger, hate, and sorrow but there is also love, and pride and above all humour. The miners were proud men. The job they did was hard - backbreaking, and no-one wanted that for their children, they wanted better for their kids, but they were immensely proud of what they did. It defined them, and it defined their community. 

The Last Seam shows the disintegration of their way of life; the ferocious fight to survive in the eighties and nineties. What struck me most as the play progressed was the switching of roles - the women in the end were the ones left fighting. It was telling for me that at the end it was the women who chained themselves to the pit railings and protested the closure. The men seemed beaten - not  defeated as such, but resigned, as finally having seen the process so many times they had not the heart to fight this one last betrayal. "We saw what was coming" is a refrain throughout the play. 

The performance by the five actors was spellbinding, they addressed the audience like one half of a conversation - remembering, explaining, telling us their stories, against the backdrop of the pit locker room and a soundtrack of punk bands. 

Did the Cast crew do justice to my mining heritage? Yes they did. it was an incredible performance.  It does not descend into sensationalism, nor morbid pessimism; there is no pity, no condescension, but there is grit and pride, there is empathy, and honesty and integrity.  (It is a credit to the professionalism of the entire team that even when the performance was unexpectedly interrupted, they resumed after the enforced break without a slip.) The five actors played their parts impeccably, impassioned, sympathetic, and completely believable.  

The Last Seam returns to the North East on Thurs 11th and Fri 12th October at The Peacock, Sunderland. It is well worth seeing, whether your background is mining, or shipbuilding or modern commerce and call centres. There is so much that we have lost - not just jobs and industries, but community and humanity. So much in this play rings true even today - perhaps if more people could experience theatre like this then we might begin claw some of it back. 

Denise Sparrowhawk 

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