Red Ladder might have lost all of its Arts Council funding but the Leeds-based theatre company is still standing strong.
Its latest work, We’re Not Going Back, focuses on the year-long Miners’ Strike but, according to the company’s artistic director Rod Dixon, the team is looking at that epic struggle from a new angle.
“We were commissioned by Unite the Union to make a play about the Miners’ Strike so the one thing the writer Boff Whalley and I didn’t want to make was another play about the police and pickets,” says Dixon.
“Boff deliberately decided to look at Women Against Pit Closures so it’s about three sisters who are very different, aged 37, 24 and 18, who live in an imaginary put village in 1984/85.”
Dixon and his long term collaborator (ex-Chumbawamba man Whalley) have done something rare in contemporary theatre: they’ve created a left-of-centre musical comedy.
“All the people we spoke to – Women Against Pit Closures and ex-miners – said please make it a comedy,” recalls Dixon. “We are doing Hemsworth Social Club and they said people won’t come if it is a grim, depressing play about the strike, but they will come if it’s a comedy.
“Everyone said it was a year of hardship, it was tough and people died, but there were lots of laughs particularly for the women. We interviewed the people who were involved and the stories they told were hilarious.”
As far as funding was concerned, Red Ladder thought that its openly leftist political stance might actually work in its favour. However, without the shackles of public funding the company is free to say exactly what it thinks.
“There is a play down south and their argument is that the strike wasn’t black and white, but I’m afraid it was,” says Dixon. “It was a real attack on communities – it wasn’t about coal – they have been absolutely clobbered, and they are still reeling from that 30 years later.
“During the strike they were solid, so like Wrong ‘Un about the suffragettes we did recently, we wanted to make it an entertaining night, and not too worthy.”
For some students of labour history the great strike is a time when the working class and the State took each other on in pitched battles like Orgreave. This play looks at what was happening on the home front as flying pickets and the Metropolitan Police fought running battles across the coalfields.
“The strike changed women’s lives. The title of the play is about not going to back to being miners’ wives, and there were a lot of divorces. We spoke to women from the time who have kept together and were still friends with women from Leeds who had been a support group.
“We asked if the men had kept together and they said they’re all dead in a matter of fact way. They all died of illness, and many of them never worked again, but the women were liberated in many ways. Women suddenly found themselves making speeches when they had never had a voice in their own communities let along standing on a platform in London.
“I don’t think it is too strong to suggest that the strike was a year long because of the women who organised their communities and a lot of the men were left with nothing to do when the women took over.”
This year has seen a whole raft of events marking 30 years since the strike started, and We’re Not Going Back had its premiere at Durham Miners’ Gala. But is a play about a dispute from another political age really relevant today?
“What we are trying to say in 2014 is that it wasn’t about coal or that strike,” argues Dixon. “What we have to do as communities is to stand up to the attacks on the working class we are suffering with the bedroom tax, attack on people on benefits and the whole austerity agenda which is a complete fallacy as we’ve seen in Greece and Spain.”
“This is about coming together and watching a play, and walking away saying they struck together 30 years ago and we need to recreate that as communities are suffering. How do we take their example and be stronger again?”
As this is a labour of love Red Ladder has pulled together a strong cast including This is England 88 and Luther star Stacey Sampson.
“Stacey is totally without ego and she is a Rotherham lass so she is just right for this part,” notes Dixon. “She is in an all-women band who do working men’s clubs so she really knows the territory. She’s not expecting the number one dressing room with a star on it.
“Victoria Brazier is very strong too and Claire Marie Seddon is not long out of drama school so she is learning from the other two. Boff’s very excited as his music has been given another layer as Beccy Owen, who is the musical director, is on tour with it and the four point harmonies are amazing.
“If we don’t have old miners weeping in this play I will gutted.”
We’re Not Going Back is on tour. To book go to www.redladder.co.uk/whats-on/current-shows