Queens of the Coal Age at Royal Exchange Theatre

Originally written for WhatsOnStage

British theatre has certainly mined a rich seam over the last couple of decades when it comes industrial nostalgia. Sting’s The Last Ship is currently touring, while the cast of The Full Monty seems consigned to hellish-hotstuff Groundhog Day. But they’re decidedly masculine productions: Maxine Peake’s Queens of the Coal Age is determined to tell a story that feels familiar, but brings a very different perspective to unemployment, Thatcher and mineral extraction.

This take – written by Peake, directed by Bryony Shanahan and based on a true story – predominantly focuses on the humour of the situation and the interplay at the four women at the heart of it, notionally led by Anne Scargill (Kate Anthony), wife of the then-NUM leader ‘King’ Arthur. With three other miner’s wives she determines to occupy a closure-threatened pit on Merseyside and bring attention to the plight of communities ravaged by closures.

We spend a lot of time with the four women as they try to keep themselves occupied over several days, with only solidarity, army blankets and imaginary dogs to keep them company. Swaddled in naff anoraks, tie-dye and Midnight Rendezvous hair colour, the quartet embark on a journey that is grimy, occasionally dark and decidedly earthy. If you didn’t laugh you’d probably cry, which probably explains the farts, exploding knickers and jazz mags that pepper the script.

But there’s always a counterpoint to these folkloric tales of stiff upper Northern lips that retell the story of working-class, post-war Britain: of anxiety, powerlessness and anger at the government and police. There are also swipes at the ‘beef bourguignon brigade’ – the university-educated poverty tourists who patronise the pickets before heading home for Radio 4 and fancy wine.

Men get it in the neck too, but there’s a balance reflected in the way the women acknowledge their feelings towards the unfairer sex. The odd visit from men both friendly and hostile, to deliver supplies and encourage them to end their protest, inject different perspectives. The young, mixed-race Michael (Conor Glen) signals a new generation with very different outlooks, interests and experiences to the white working-class of the mid-20th Century.

The theatre-in-the-round setting is put to good use with no less than a pit head lift convincingly created within the confines of the theatre in an attempt to recreate the dank, dangerous mine. There has perhaps never been a stage so dark as the Royal Exchange’s for this production, often barely lit by headlamps – one of the acknowledged ‘miner details’ that give set, sound design and lighting such authenticity. The audience could be seen pulling their coats around their shoulders on a very hot July night but it was the cold and black of the pit they were feeling.

Where Queens of the Coal Age has a problem it’s in the relative lack of threat or urgency. Once the women have occupied the mine there’s nowhere to go apart from back to the surface. It’s not clear what, if anything, has been achieved through the women’s occupation of the pit. Perhaps the occupation, in and of itself, is the point and in the retelling of this important story the four women might finally feel their ordeal commanded the attention it richly deserved back in 1993, half a world away.

Happy Days at the Royal Exchange

Maxine Peake wrings a lot out of her face. Which is good news, because for much of Happy Days that’s as much as the audience can see of her. In Samuel Beckett’s testing two-hander, the Royal Exchange’s associate artist is buried waist-deep, and subsequently up to her neck, in metaphor – and more besides.

Happy Days, the most recent collaboration between Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, is almost perfect in using the theatre’s striking in-the-round set-up. With Peake’s Winnie and husband Willie (David Crellin) stuck in or on a revolving pyramid of scorched earth it’s as if someone has deposited a large termite mound inside a mini Hadron collider. It’s a remarkable thing to come across in any theatre; in the Royal Exchange Naomi Dawson’s set makes perfect sense.

But perhaps more a moat than a mound. There is a sense of isolation provided by a circle of water, with plastic littering the shoreline. Beckett’s absurdist play may function as metaphor for life, love and loneliness, but its protagonists are trapped within a very real pile of dirt.

From here Winnie embarks on what is an almost complete monologue, punctuated only with rare interjections from the apparently-serene Willie. She seems to fear silence; he appears to hate noise. Taken alone, Winnie’s words might amount to little but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

She cleans her teeth, erects a parasol, chides her husband. The juxtaposition of crashing monotony and the surreal situation allows a deep exploration of futility kept at bay by whimsy, habit and buggering on; a cream cracker, underground, on an impossible island.

Peake’s performance is reminiscent of erstwhile situation comedy’s leading ladies. It’s hard to not detect a little of Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge, Barbara Lott; a Sidney Lotterby housewife swallowed up by interminable days filled with mild self-reproach, pointless pleasantries and nervous verbosity.

Despite her predicament Winnie tried to remain upbeat, albeit with ‘sorrow breaking in’. Happy Days is a portrait of stoicism in an age of anxiety; of the power and powerlessness of words.

If the Royal Exchange feels made for Happy Days, the Winnie could have been written for Peake. As a feat of recollection her monologue would be impressive in itself, but Peake manages to imbue Winnie with such rich detail, using every inch of flesh available to bring nuance to her words and gestures. Even as she launches into more platitudes, her fingers worry the straggly grass beneath her.

In the second half only her head is visible, slowly rotating while a small camera displays her visage on screens above the stage, Willie apparently gone. Peake uses every muscle on her face to convey the growing panic, her stiff upper lip only occasionally glanced. Her voice grows more staccato, shrill, entreating. In the end the audience is offered a choice as to how they view the many dualities Beckett serves up, but it leaves a troubling afterimage.

If Happy Days is a test of the audience’s mettle it must be gruelling indeed for Peake, who takes the audience’s fulsome applause while still encased in the mound, moving only to dab at her brow, having been assailed by blinding lights and deafening bells while encased in theatre’s most famous hillock.

She looked to breathe a sigh of relief, exhaustion, satisfaction, perhaps elation. In its own way the audience might have joined in.

• Originally written for WhatsOnStage.