Eileen Caiger Gray reviews The Last Seam at Doncaster Cast (September 22nd 2018)
Beside a wall of tiles, cracked, chipped and badly stained, fixed with metal pipe and dull lights, sits a bank of grey, grimy lockers, a metal rail-bench below. A section of metal pithead frame lies overturned on the other side. Add the odd waft of steam, and Kevin Jenkins’ set evokes perfectly the time and place and gives versatile, flowing use of the studio space (especially that opening locker!) Pit helmets and coal-caked faces are not needed to bring vividly to life the lives of the everyday people in a mining village – just five superb actors dressed in everyday clothing (plus one in-your-face police sergeant’s uniform).
Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and producer Garry Lyons has written Doncaster CAST’s very first touring theatre production, The Last Seam, which highlights the profound devastation the sledgehammer of history wrought upon the entire coal industry and, most especially, on the formerly thriving, vibrant communities whose lives had revolved around the industry for generations. First sunk in 1916, Hatfield Main Colliery, one of more than a score of mines in the Doncaster area alone, was one of the last deep seam mines to close in 2015. Over a period of two years, Garry Lyons recorded the stories, thoughts and feelings of ex-miners, their families and other members of these South Yorkshire communities and skillfully wove them, largely verbatim, into a coherent, flowing, two-act piece in which well-rounded, engaging characters, full of emotion yet never overly sentimental or nostalgic, tell things as they were and as they are.
Sharon (Cathy Breeze), Joe (David Chafer), Paul (Jamie Smelt), Ted (Ray Castleton) and Julie (Emma Tugman) interact together onstage or directly address anecdote and reminiscence to the audience, doing it so engagingly it’s as if the original speakers were themselves onstage in this intimate space, telling with powerful, heartfelt, honest emotion of personal hardship, heart-break and tragedy, all laced through with courage and humour.
Black and white photo projections help show how very closely the history of mining is entwined with the history of these families, while voice clips from news’ items and from Thatcher, Major and David (Big Society!) Cameron move us through the years, wrenching us out from under the social umbrella of tight-knit, vibrant communities, through miners’ strikes, through the brutal Battle of Orgreave and the dubious role of police and media, through the comical tale of the foggy potato field, through unemployment and deprivation, through despair and breakdown in individuals, marriages and families, and on to Brexit. Yet all is not quite lost: an element of optimism still shines through.
But the piece is more than a claustrophobic concentration on politics and bitter recriminations. Details of personal lives unfold and stories expand into the worlds of social work, nightclubs, court hearings and humanitarian work in Turkey, the actors giving realistic, wonderfully moving portrayals. Paul, in fact, was never a miner, but – bursts of punk music – a wild and free Punk rebel back in the day. As he battles from a difficult childhood through episodes of mental illness, witnessing brutal suicide and suffering unbearable loss, Jamie Smelt’s is just one of the highly moving performances.
This is a slice of history brought to life, via gifted actors, by those who lived it.
The play will now tour community venues around South Yorkshire, Leeds, Newcastle and Sunderland