It’s rather apt that this new staging of this classic play about greed, lies and family rivalries opens at the Royal Exchange as the final series of Succession also hits our screens. Director Roy Alexander Weise is clearly fascinated by themes of family dynamics and the ugliness that may lie beneath the surface and bubble up to the surface at any family gathering. There is a powerful moment when the Pollitt family circle in and sing Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down (memorable from another family drama series Greenleaf). The stage and cast are bathed in blood red light and the violence of avarice and mendacity is palpable at what is, on the surface a family birthday celebration.
Weise subverts the classic text by casting black actors as the wealthy Plantation owning family. The themes of exploitation, greed, capitalism and pride look as authentically ugly here as in the original. They are timeless and not subject to any one race or creed. Patrick Robinson is a stylish suited and booted Big Daddy, his veneer of brute determination and utter self-belief is softened only by his adoration of his younger son Brick. Bayo Gbadamosi is a beautiful, detached Brick who is weary of his wife’s passion and vitality. He has checked out and no longer has an interest in anything but liquor and chasing the click. There is a potential issue in the modern day setting in that it is more tricky to understand his absolute avoidance of confronting his own homosexuality. Perhaps it is best contextualised in the setting of Brick as a sportsman and football player and his absolute emotional paralysis as that of a man broken by guilt and grief.
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu makes a memorable stage entrance and dominates the first Act. Her Maggie is as bootilicious as Beyonce and as lush as an overblown gardenia. She is all women and outwardly confident of her sexual allure but Ndlovu seamlessly also shows her vulnerability and frustration in this sexless, childless marriage. Alternating between funny and vicious, this cat on a hot tin roof is not to be trifled with. Jacqui Dubois is great as Big Mama choosing only to see what suits her and flitting away any inconvenient truths. Danielle Henry relishes her role as the fecund Mae, flouting her pregnant belly and constantly referencing her brood of would-be heirs or as Maggie terms them…no neck monsters.
Set in modern day, Milla Clarke hascreated a beautiful set with a sleek bedroom setting and loads of hidden alcoves secreting as many empty booze bottles and wigs as the family hide secrets and ambitions. The huge rumpled bed is a constant allusion to restless but sexless nights in this unhappy marital bed. High above the bed and constantly turning like time is a stylish suggestion of a child’s mobile taunting Maggie. Gold beaded curtains hint at the great wealth in this house but also suggest the binding, suffocating chains of gleaming greed in this luxurious prison.
The soundscape by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and the lighting design by Lizzie Powell work brilliantly together to build the dreamy, slightly unreal mood of the production. Ethereal echoes of voices and music and flashes of far off lightening or fireworks in the grounds create a great illusion of the space and scope of this grand house beyond this steamy, claustrophobic bedroom. Overall Weise has created a gorgeously engrossing piece of theatre worthy of sitting back and binging on.
QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peake‘s humorous and compassionate homage to the four women from Women Against Pit Closures who staged a 5 day peaceful protest within Parkside Colliery in 1993. As with Tour de Beryl andThe Last Testament of Lillian BiloccaPeake joyfully celebrates women who make a difference, who effect social change regardless of personal cost. As with previous work Peake mines a rich vein of humour throughout. She has an acute insight into the need for laughter in the bleakest of situations as humour can protect the toughest of us when we feel at our most vulnerable or desperate.
The four actresses deliver authentic, naturalistic performances. Kate Anthony bristles with energy and passion as Anne Scargill but poignantly allows for the expression of the unforgettable humiliations during the Strikes that wounded this formidable woman. Eve Robertson as Elaine displays a wonderful blend of awkwardness, difference and passion. Every emotion is conveyed with a real physicality that reminded me of Victoria Wood performing at her most vulnerable. Jane Hazlegrove endears as Dot who blusters through her misgivings and shines a light on the dilemma of how to build a society for our children while trying to also provide a secure homelife for them. Danielle Henry as Lesley brings spontaneity and exuberance to the group as she portrays a more youthful passion for the cause and brings awareness to the casual racism she experiences.
Looking at interviews that Anne Scargill and the other women gave after the strike to journalists and to Peake herself during her research , there is a genuine sense of almost verbatim delivery at times. Little touches such as Lesley’s hair combs becoming needles to stitch blankets from sacking and creating paper roses and a vase really happened and are touching elements of their story that are lovingly included.
The stage design by Georgia Lowe and lighting by Elliot Griggs capture life down the pit with the industrial pit head lift and the dim lighting enhanced by the mining lamps all around the stage and circle. They work in harmony to create a chilly feeling in the theatre as though the audience are underground too, observing in silence like the miners from different eras of the past who move poignantly on and off the stage.
Director Bryony Shanahan ensures that the comedy banter also allows space for the politics at the heart of this production. This production burns with the outrage that although some things may change such as musical taste – there are humorous bursts of music from the women’s youth alongside the pounding beat of young miner Michael’s beloved house music which electrifies the women too. However, the deep frustration lies in that racism, inequality and poverty continue to dominate the lives of so many. It’s noteworthy that nearby Oldham Coliseum is also premiering new work celebrating the power of protest with Ian Kershaw’sBread and Roses. QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is a production that celebrates unity, friendship, political activism and the ongoing importance of collaboration for social change. All hail the Queens of The Coal Age and all those women who seek something better for themselves, their families and their communities.