COAL, Traverse Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
Gary Clarke Company
Gary Clarke (Artistic Direction and choreography), Steven Roberts (Musical Director) Ryan Dawson Laight (costume set and design), Charles Webber (lighting) Lou Cope (Dramaturgy) Daniel Thomas (Soundscape Design), Steven Roberts (director), Siobhan Mckeown (Archive Film Maker)
Alistair Goldsmith, Neal Maxwell, Beno Novak, Joss Carter, Parsifal James (PJ) Hurst (Miners), TC Howard (The Miner’s Wife), Eleanor Perry (Thatcher), Steve Nallon (voice of Thatcher)

Whitburn Band: Douglas Couchman (cornet), Sarah Saum (cornet), Iain Fleming (Tenor Horn), Alan Douglas (Euphonium), Robert Fraser (Eb Bass)

Edinburgh Community Cast: Carol Dickson, Lillian Kerr, Kate Macsween, Eileen McCrae (Pit Women)
Running time

In the programme notes for Coal Yorkshire born dance artist and choreographer, Gary Clarke says, “It’s not meant to be a political show, nor is it meant to be provocative.” Nothing could be further from the truth. His ‘deeply personal’ take on the miners’ strike of the ‘80s based on his upbringing in the mining village of Grimethorpe is highly political and all the better for that. Clarke drills in to his personal memories and opens a rich seam of mining life that gives the deepest and most lasting kind of political message.

Based on years of research involving individuals and organisations directly affected by the events of 1984-85, Coal is a stunning and searing piece of work. Using professional dancers alongside local community women and local brass bands that are recruited specially at every venue, Clarke puts his clear love of humanity and fairness at its centre. For the Edinburgh show, it is five members of the Whitburn Band that accompany the performance.

From the opening passage where TC Howard as the Miner’s Wife creates a hilarious scene of pan bashing and tattie peeling full of acrobatic clowning. She slices cabbages with a knife and the air with her extremely agile legs, coaxing her lazy lump of a man to work to the gentle strains Morning has Broken from the band whose glinting brass contrasts sharply with the dull tin of her kitchen implements. All this before she heads for work herself!

Then the flipside of the coin. Clarke shows why her man sleeps so deeply; why he need to be coaxed from his personal pit to go to the real pit. These men may be infantile at times with their women but together they are the essence of towering male comradeship. They rollick and swagger together as they head for work bathed in sunny maleness like a bunch of jolly jack tars.

When the cage drops to a series of coughs and shattering noise created by Daniel Thomas it is easy to suspend disbelief and feel you are actually in this underground world that most of us would never see, or even want to. Here we see the embodiment of unison and interdependence through the gracefully animalistic movements of the five dancers who swirl and twist to fierce balletic form as though lubricated by some super fuel; at once bestial and heroic. They carry pit beams across their shoulders like Christ heading for Calvary and Charles Webber’s lighting on their rippling backs makes them resemble Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Les Raboteurs de Parquet (The Floor Planers) .

When a slit skirted, big haired Eleanor Perry arrives on stage as Thatcher, like the ghost of Christmas future, the ultimate party spoiler, her voice eerily re-created by Steve Nallon, she ruins their energetic slosh and everything changes at the drop of a handbag.

The tragedy of their emasculation, defeat and collapse are all expressed passionately and beautifully as a community is left broken and whistling in the wind but, positively and ironically, with a band of strong women more visible than before.

This vital show is performed to a wide range of music from the twittering canaries at the start to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to Strauss’s Radetsky March to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ Woolly Bully and of course the Floral Dance with some suitable folk songs in between.

Clarke’s fear that this pivotal period is in danger of being forgotten is unfounded at least for those who attend this heartfelt homage to a lost way of life and a lost society (yes, society!). The barely suppressed ’boo’ that the character of Thatcher nearly got when this astonishing company took its bow is testament to that.

14 to 16 September at 7.30pm tour continues age recommend 12+