A couple of years ago I saw a terrific version of this emotive Alan Plater play-with-music produced by Newcastle-based Northern Stage which I thought could well be unsurpassable. But Kevin Shaw’s irresistibly energized production for Oldham Coliseum is, remarkably, much better and easily on a par with the Coliseum’s wonderful, multi-Manchester Theatre Award-winning version of Chicago from a while ago.
Plater’s 1968 original, based on stories from writer Sid Chaplin, has been updated with some additional material from Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters), although retaining Alex Glasgow’s traditionally-based original songs. Crucially, though, it has been tightened up so that it runs through with just the one interval, adding greatly to the emotional impact of a piece that always managed to pull off the trick of marrying serious themes with humour.
It follows the fortunes of a North-East coal mining family through more than a century of toil, activism, family feuds and some good times too as an old couple, Thomas (Cliff Burnett) and Mary (Jane Holman, who was actually in the Northern Stage tour) celebrate their anniversary with their family around them. One of their sons John (James Hedley) still works down the mine, while Frank (Samuel Hargreaves) got away to university and is visiting with his ‘posh’ girlfriend Ruth (Maeve O’Sullivan, hugely impressive in her professional stage debut). Other visitors include Geordie (Phil Corbitt) and Jackie (Andrew Vincent) as well as the local vicar (Matt Connor). All of them, though, multi-task impressively, not only taking on a number of parts but also called upon to sing and play, which they do with considerable aplomb.
Shaw’s direction is clear and precise, making complete sense of the story without turning it into a history lesson and adding more than a few grace notes, particularly from the point of view of a contemporary audience. So much so, in fact, that I suspect this superb production would amply reward more than one visit. Do try to see it at least once though, if you possibly can.
Main image by Joel Fildes
Where Oldham Coliseum
When: until July 12, 2014
More info: http://www.coliseum.org.uk/plays/close-the-coalhouse-door/