Down the dark pit, Bible-bred men quote the Book of Job. “He putteth forth his hand upon the rock; he overturneth the mountains by the roots. God was a miner!” A rattling cage brings up singing men. A square-cut pit yawns beneath ladders, gratings and pit-props, a hot deep hell within a giant arc of grimy steel. Ed Hall has made his theatre into a hospital, a running-track, a spacecraft and a Kinks gig. Now it’s a Nottinghamshire coalmine.

For Beth Steel’s play marks thirty years since the bitter miners’ strike, the 1984 clash of wills between Thatcher’s Friedmanite free-market economics and the stubbornness of Arthur Scargill, who unprecedentedly called a national strike without a ballot. Communities were fractured, families impoverished, long hatreds bred. Now, as schools at last are told to teach the culture of the white working-class, and while we celebrate the humble heroes of WW1, this anniversary too is fitting.

Steel’s theme is the gap between political decisions and the mining communities’ inherited pride in graft and craft – even if, economically, pits made less sense than before. In the first act, apprentices of sixteen are lashed into shape by the gaffer (Paul Brennen, credibly tough). Men josh, stripped to boots and underpants in immense heat. Above and around them stroll the masters, impervious: Michael Cochrane as the American Ian MacGregor, Andrew Havill as a more hesitant Peter Walker. “The public are fond of the miners. They’re seen as the backbone of the working class”. “I don’t believe in class” snaps the American. They are not caricatured (though it is hard to play Nicholas Ridley straight without sounding like one, and Paul Cawley does it justice). There are moments of artful contrast; in one of the many deafening rockfalls the power goes off : the scared voices of the new boys as they dangle helpless in the cage are counterpointed by Walker’s “The government is hanging by a thread..”.

The story runs from the first disingenuous NCB reassurances through closures, the strike call, flying pickets, and the Battle of Orgreave. Steel reminds us of other events – the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher while we still badly needed Gaddafi’s oil, and the Brighton hotel bombing which for all its horror enabled the Prime Minister to talk of enemies within, and to heroicize her stand against the NUM too.

But this is not agitprop but a memorial, a replaying of ironies , follies and the sweet sad music of humanity. Steel’s text is well served by Ed Hall’s direction (Ashley Martin-Davis designs, Scott Ambler choreographs stirring movement, and the mining ballads are restrainedly moving. ) Scargill’s folly is acknowledged as much as the government’s savagery (no sacked strikers were reinstated). The preposterous figure of David Hart, ‘undercover stirrer of anti-strike feeling, needs little exaggeration, and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart allows him to provide a sour kind of light relief. And it is, amazingly, true that pitman Spud (Gunnar Cauthery) ,who rejected the unballoted strike, ended up as Hart’s chauffeur.

It is not mawkish, though as Christmas approaches the pitmen’s shamed poverty is painful, as proud men scavenging coal-fragments are caught by a security guard, fearing for his own job (nicely, it’s Cawley again). The sense of old pride scorned and humbled is quietly painful. So is the bitterness (the BBC had to apologize for biased reporting of Orgreave, the strike cost billions and was looked on with disgust by fellow European countries). But it makes a piece of thrilling and personal theatre.

box office 020 7722 9301 to 26 July    Supported by Lin & Ken Craig

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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