Choreographer Gary Clarke grew up in the mining village of Grimethorpe, south Yorkshire, and watched the devastation wrought by the dismantling of the national coal industry in the 1980s. His latest work, Coal, was a way for him to mark the 30-year anniversary of the miners’ strike, celebrate the communities that were affected, and try to capture the lived experience of those times. He succeeds rather magnificently.
There’s a boisterous, no-nonsense attitude to Coal from the start, as TC Howard’s miner’s wife bangs about in the kitchen preparing breakfast before the shift starts. Members of North London Brass (the band changes with each touring location) provide the evocative onstage accompaniment. The five miners who head off to work together continue the sense of rough affection, their dance suitably grounded and low to the floor, with emphatic stamping and a rowdy camaraderie. But once they descend into the pit the crushing physicality of their job is surprisingly effectively evoked. Through a dry ice haze and a loud, industrial noise soundtrack, the extremes these men had to push their bodies through find a muscular manifestation in these dancers’ movements. Cooperation and consideration for each other are key elements that dance can also expose in a raw and affecting way – when one of the miners is overwhelmed by breathing in the fumes and coal dust in this diabolical workplace, the desperate scramble to get him up to the air is forcefully portrayed.
Coal mining is thus shown in all its visceral horror. The reason it was fought for so determinedly is explained more in the next part of Coal – the sense of pride and community is shown as the women wash down their men, and prepare for the evening at the social club, complete with Wagon Wheels for audience members, a raffle and wild dancing to Woolly Bully. But into this convivial setting stalks Eleanor Perry’s Thatcher, like a gurning, convulsing Carabosse coming to curse the celebrations. The sense of wild caricature is heightened by the fact the voiceover, repeating some of the then PM’s pronouncements, is provided by Steve Nallon, the man who voiced Spitting Image’s iconic Thatcher puppet. Perry marvellously oozes malevolence and sneering contempt.
Perhaps understandably, this is when the oomph goes out of Coal. TC Howard, a joyously feisty presence, leads a group of local recruits representing the Pit Women, recounting their efforts to support the strike; the men’s determination to stick out the privations and violence teeters, as they turn in agonising duets with their wives. The ending is cruelly downbeat. But, in many ways, this adds to the sense of startling authenticity that Clarke has managed to capture in Coal. If only he’d been able to persuade his dancers to ditch the anachronistic hipster beards…