Eden Court, Inverness
Saturday, March 10
Looking at the idea on paper, Coal could so easily have ended up being the pits.
Attempting to turn the lives and stories of the coalminers from before and during the infamous 1984-85 strikes – one of Britain’s most caustic and divisive moments in recent domestic history – into a piece of contemporary dance theatre is an unconventional idea to say the least. One that may have ended up being a disaster.
Yet Gary Clarke and company have created something taut, compelling and accessible, a dance production that never loses sight of the story it’s looking to tell within the intricacies of its choreography.
What immediately stands out, in fact, is just how narratively clear a production Coal is. Through its three distinct acts (a miner and his wife as she harries around him getting him ready; the day’s labour in the mines; and the slow, miserable grind of the strike itself) its focus remains pinpoint and the audience – even this deep-fried dance novice – is never left behind.
It’s a warm story the piece is telling as well – at least within its first two acts – that drives home the idea of the communities that built up around the industry. The harried wife getting her husband ready for the mines, the camaraderie of the workforce as they get ready, and the teamwork when they’re in the pits are all brought to the fore.
This spirit shines even in the darkness of the mine shafts during its second act, where the staging, sound and light designs come together to create a dissonant and murky place. With the roar and hiss of machinery and the clattering of chains rattling around the stage, the whole thing puts one in mind of hell.
And if the production captures the feel of the mines themselves, the dancers capture the sheer physicality of the miners at work – each action is deliberately laboured as the miners duck and weave and mine, and the gasps of breath from the cast
That there is a moment in this darkness when, on their break the miners play cards and joke together, is a moment to savour – the image of them laughing together under the spotlight away from the screaming noise of the machinery is one that remains long in the mind.
Yet this image does not last. We know how this story ends. And for those wondering if a production choreographed by child of miners Gary Clarke, who experienced the strikes and the decimation left in its aftermath throughout the mining village of Grimethorpe, may attempt to look at both sides in the strike, allow me to put you out of your misery – nope.
And it’s a good thing it doesn’t, either. Regardless of what your opinion is on the strikes, the fact that a piece of contemporary dance theatre – a stereotypically middle-class artform – is actively engaging with working class politics infuses the piece with a fury and energy in its third act.
Even the audience – a Highland crowd a hundred miles removed from the effects of the strikes – were swept up in it by the end. The (admittedly good-natured) booing at the end for the dancer who played Thatcher – in Coal transformed into a kabuki villain – all exaggerated movements and harsh make-up lines – said it all.
What did you think? Comment below or tweet Kyle: @spp_kwalker