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Published on Tuesday, 16 August 2011

5 stars

New Town Theatre (venue website)
4-15, 17-28 Aug, 3:30pm-4:50pm
Reviewed by Carmel Doohan

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

This is theatre as a well-researched, genuinely political, investigation. Set in the near future, on the day Margaret Thatcher dies, the play follows Arthur Scargill and his publisher as they meet an ex-miner to hear his story. But we soon shift to see another real-life Arthur – A J Cook, the 1920's trade union leader – delivering extracts from his own speeches to the miners, and to a modern-day family in Newcastle bearing the brunt of the latest cuts. Their stories converge, and while the wheels of coincidence and plot are occasionally too apparent, the pace never falters.

Writer and director Ade Morris gets mesmerizing performances from his cast, depicting relationships with elegance and wit. The dialogue is affectionate – the gentle yet scathing tone of people who know each other really well. Characterisation is ambiguous and realistic; actors think one thing while doing another, embodying lives rather than lines.

This is also a play that knows its facts. Producer Ralph Bernard spent many hours interviewing Arthur Scargill, and has produced a radio documentary on mining communities. Crucial historical information is woven into domestic arguments, in an entirely convincing way, and the rigour of the research creates trust. There are moments when I worry the tale will become overly reductive, but it doesn't; any emotion the play draws from the audience is earned, and the dialogue refuses to succumb to easy sentimentality.

It’s unclear whether A J Cook's speeches were verbatim, but they were moving and eloquent. His passionate call to ordinary people, demanding they think about what the society around them should value, felt somehow shocking – as if to speak with such earnest idealism has become a kind of taboo. His words recalled a much needed but apparently forgotten language, making modern times seem strangely censored; the relevant and obvious points he makes about capitalism and change are given no space by today's politicians or mainstream media.

I left feeling grateful for the skill and restraint with which this history lesson was offered. By paralleling the 1980's with the present day, it argues that inequality hasn't changed; the brunt is still being borne by the lowest earners, the script suggests, yet we now lack the communal narrative to speak of it. This is a timely and important play. In a society that seems to have decided there is no longer any alternative to neo-capitalism, it offers a welcome alternative perspective.

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