Review: Coal @ Birmingham Hippodrome

One of the great things about being a theatre reviewer is you never know quite what you’re going to see, and sometimes even when you think you do you’re in for a big surprise. This applies to the premiere of Gary Clarke’s Coal with knobs on.

Although ostensibly a dance event, Coal beguilingly moves towards a multi-media presentation including as it does incidental music from an on-stage City of Birmingham Brass Band, atmospheric soundtracks, visuals including archive film footage, plus the spoken word as it revisits the story of what happened when mining communities fought the government during the miners’ strike. The cast includes professional actors and dancers as well as enthusiastic members of the public.

Coal

Coal

The result is an engaging, often compelling look at the behaviour of real people under political (and personal) pressure during a critical period of national strife.

The main section of the action draws heavily on the miners’ dangerous work underground, exploring choreographically the wide range of profoundly physical actions men use singly and collaboratively in the dirty and dangerous quest to get at the black stuff.

Beautifully lit, the compelling dancing of the five men representing those miners expresses the extreme physicality inherent in the dark reality of their task and the comradeship of teamwork born out of necessity in this Underworld of difficult and dangerous work.

Telling this story cannot avoid being political, and there’s no reason why it should – there were at least two sides to the story, but only one unhappy outcome. And although we see and hear the voices of the wives, mothers and girlfriends, it is Eleanor Perry uncannily impersonating a demonised Spitting Image-style Mrs. Thatcher using the leaderene’s own words who most clearly characterises the war-like status of the fight.

The opening sequence was among the very best things I’ve seen recently. Here the woman of the house choreographically organises the housekeeping to get the man ready for work in an exhausting and hilarious domestic version of conveyor-belt assembly, feeds him, dresses him, then cleans up after him like a piecework packer in a sequence that’s quite clearly shouting “Housekeeping is work too!”

Hats off to Coal’s creator Gary Clarke. There’s so much in it, I would really love to see it again.

Coal runs until tomorrow (February 13). For tickets phone the box office on 0844 338 5000 or visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com.

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Founder of LichfieldLive and editor of the site.