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Coal review at the Place, London – ‘an accusatory resonance’

Scene from Coal at The Place, London. Scene from Coal at The Place, London. Photo: Joe Armitage
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Just when you thought contemporary dance was in danger of disappearing up its own perfumed fundament, along comes Gary Clarke’s piece, Coal, to show that dance is not necessarily divorced from politics and real life. This is agit-prop ballet delivered with the conviction that arises from experience and outrage.

Like a souped-up version of a DH Lawrence play – A Collier’s Friday Night – it is laced with sweat, blood and grime. While women in their kitchens struggle to get by, their husbands crawl through the tunnels deep underground, their bent backs turning strong virile, upright men into crouching subhumans.

The lengthy mining section favours full body theatre over literal mime; the punishing physical hardship of the work is conveyed through individual and collective movement, shifting patterns of dense muscularity as the men slap the stage, pull and twist, roll and mould each other like human Plasticine. The sense of mutual reliance is strong and the simple methods of spotlighting naked backs slick and shiny with sweat or using a black balloon blown up to bursting point to suggest a lung saturated with coal dust are vivid images.

Margaret Thatcher stalks the stage like a pin-striped Valkyrie. Yes, it’s a grotesque caricature but who can blame them? Judicious use of voice over and snatches of text complement the action and deliver the occasional reality check: “Who’s got the money to go burning bras?” says one woman reading an article about Women’s Lib. There is a wry, scalding humour throughout and the Woolly Bully disco sequence is bang on the money.

The final gesture of defiance in defeat has an accusatory resonance that is as powerful as the ferocious howls of anguish that precede it.

Verdict
Visceral piece of physical theatre recalling the shattering impact of the pit closures in the 1980s
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