Queens of the Coal Age review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘entertaining and persuasive’
It feels like Maxine Peake is on home turf with her third play for the stage. Like Beryl and The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca before it, Queens of the Coal Age takes its inspiration from another real-life tale of indomitable women railing against a patriarchal force.
But this retelling of the story of a quartet of miner’s wives – including Anne Scargill, wife of Arthur – who in 1993 occupied the Parkside colliery in Merseyside in protest at its closure also benefits from Peake’s gift for salty, believable dialogue, channelling her hero Victoria Wood’s comic gift for the gab and leavening the polemic rage that pulses throughout. So while the four days the women spent 2,000 feet below ground was an uncomfortable ordeal, the experience here is mostly a breezily enjoyable one.
The piece’s origins as a 45-minute radio play become evident in the second half, where some of the diversions feel like padding, diluting the narrative flow without adding any further depth to the characterisations. But the cast are never less than engaging, with Eve Robertson standing out as repressed schoolteacher Elaine, bristling with pink-cheeked indignation at being treated like a figure of fun by the others.
Around them, director Bryony Shanahan and her design team work wonders in bringing the potentially sedentary action to visual life, with the women’s descent and ascent vividly realised and hordes of miners – past and present – effectively flooding the stage to show their solidarity and reflecting the efforts of generations of working men cruelly extinguished by the closures.