Maxine Peake and Bryony Shanahan talk about Queens of the Coal Age, the latest New Vic production putting the stories of coal mining communities on stage…
Coal mining in North Staffordshire dates back a staggering 700 years, with the historic coalfield encompassing an area of nearly 100 square miles, almost exclusively located within the boundaries of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire.
In 1874, 20,758 of the region’s population worked in the industry, with 33,000 employed at the end of the next decade. By the 20th Century, most manual workers in North Staffordshire, if not employed in pottery or iron and steel, were employed in mining.
The industry has long been represented in New Vic Productions, with miners, mining communities and life at the coalfields taking centre-stage both at the old and New Vic Theatre.
The theatre first worked alongside coal miners in the 1970s, with Jowl Jowl and Listen Lads!, made with miners from Trentham’s Hem Heath Colliery and thus began a longstanding relationship with the pit and coal mining community.
In 1981, Miner Dig The Coal was a celebration of the working lives of the area’s miners. Hem Heath miners were so proud to see their stories on stage they were the very first to donate to the Vic Appeal, coming straight from their shift underground to personally hand over a cheque to support the fundraising effort to build Europe’s first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round.
Despite the decline of the industry locally, the New Vic continued to tell the stories of miners, their families and their work – Artistic Director Theresa Heskins’ very first production was The Glee Club by Richard Cameron and productions of DH Lawrence’s powerful family dramas, The Daughter-In-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd followed. More recently, Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters recounted how miners-turned-artists, The Ashington Group, took the art world by storm, while New Vic Borderlines’ community outreach work commemorated the centenary of Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Minnie Pit disaster which killed 155 men and boys.
In 1993, Nice Girls told the story of three miners’ wives who occupied Trentham Colliery, and it’s the story of four ordinary women protesting the impending closure of a pit that comes to the fore once more in Maxine Peake’s new play, Queens of the Coal Age, on stage this September. A co-production with Royal Exchange, Manchester, this powerful play is based on real-life events at the Parkside Colliery in 1993.
Maxine Peake, whose first play Beryl was staged by the New Vic last year, said: “I wrote Queens of the Coal Age because I wanted to shine a light on Anne, Lesley, Elaine and Dot’s determination and bravery, their ingenuity and passion. These four extraordinary women did something… they took direct action. I didn’t want their protest to be forgotten, I wanted to celebrate their efforts.
“Protest is more potent now than ever. To me it isn’t about clicking a mouse or ‘liking’ something, it’s about getting out there and facing your oppressors, being visible. It’s not always about winning the struggle, but it’s about stemming the flow. We need to show we are still here. We still have a fight in us and we won’t roll over, and The Queens are, for me, champions of that – fearless women who stood up to be counted.”
The production will be directed by Royal Exchange Associate Director Bryony Shanahan, who last worked with the New Vic on Around The World In Eighty Days in 2014.
Born and bred in Stoke-on-Trent, Bryony said: “I’m completely thrilled to be coming back to the New Vic, and home, and I couldn’t be prouder that it’s with this piece. Based on real-life events, these women represent the importance of protest, the importance of having a voice and using it, especially in the face of what looks like immovable authority.
“The effects of the mining strike and the subsequent pit closures are still being felt in our communities, and it is therefore vital that we don’t forget this brutal chapter, but that we continue the conversation, and celebrate the action of those who took a stand. And to be telling the story of the Parkside Occupation, from the women’s prospective, feels both exciting and necessary.”
Queens of the Coal Age continues our tradition of telling these stories and shining a light on an industry that occupies an irreplaceable position in the industrial and social history of North Staffordshire and beyond.