Theatre Review: Close The Coalhouse Door - York Theatre Royal ✭✭✭✭✭

Close The Coalhouse Door
York Theatre Royal

What kind of theatre do you want?  Gritty drama? Musical? Comedy perhaps? Whichever one of those you selected, or even it was a combination, then Close The Coalhouse Door, which is sadly about to conclude it’s tour around the North of England, should be extremely high on your list.

The first door you should concern yourself with though is the theatre’s front door – as that is where you should leave any preconceptions conjured up by the title. Dispel any thoughts that this is simply going to be a “it’s grim up North” drama. It certainly has an element of that but that would undersell this superb production from Northern Stage and Live Theatre massively.

We are introduced to a play within a play from the outset; this show is self-aware with the actors often coming away from character to address, and occasionally interact with, the audience. We join the anniversary celebrations of a North East coal mining family and whilst their present story sets the scene, it is the stories of striking pitmen that form the main basis of Alan Plater’s clever play.

The cast slip easily from one character to another as they gently guide us through the history of the coalminer’s struggles against their money obsessed employers and corrupt politicians. The unjustness of the working conditions imposed on them, the development of the unions and how the consciences of the nation were stirred are brought vividly to life by the family enacting key moments from the past.

But this is no dry trudge through the history books. A deep vein of humour runs through the show and, under the direction of Sam West, is allowed to shine demonstrating the positive attitude that lied behind the curtains of houses in Northern mining towns living in the shadows of the slag heaps. To help further, jokes are brought up to date for modern audiences and tailored to fit the locality of the theatre. Be warned though, there are some true groaners littered amongst the script that would even have some panto writers wincing!

This is a family get-together though which means nothing can be straight forward. The return of the prodigal son, who broke away from the family tradition to study rather than mine, sparks debate about the way the world is changing – especially when compared to his brother who seems to be shackled by his roots. The stark reality of change is wonderfully underlined at the close of the 3 act play.

Whilst not an out and out musical, there are a number of witty musical numbers and the cast pick up instruments and strike up a song at will. They take us from folk tunes about the hard coalface to rock and roll as the music mirrors the journey through time.

All cast members are superb. They engage the audience fantastically and you get the sense that they are truly enjoying the performance. The subject matter traditionally lends itself to a more seriously straight production, but here the cast make their serious points in a way that is thoroughly enjoyable and fun without making light of the narrative. A tricky line to walk but successfully carried off.

This is a complete production. Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set is dynamic, being at one moment expansive and then contracting to reflect the claustrophobic feeling of the mine. And this is no mechanically operated revolve – like the miners, the actors are made to graft! Lighting too is impressive with James Farncombe’s design helping to take us from one scenario to another, from the dark gloom of the pit to the bright lights of a 1960’s gig.

This is one of the most surprising pieces of theatre I have seen for sometime and gave the audience an evening of entertainment in a way many of them were perhaps not expecting. One audience member commented as he left at the end “that was the best play I have seen in theatre for a long time”, and I find it hard to disagree. In fact, I loved every second of it!

Close The Coalhouse Door continues at York Theatre Royal until 30 June 2012.

5 stars out of 5 ✭✭✭✭✭

Review by James Eaglesfield