Theatre is one of the most unique ways to shine lights on subjects that are often kept in the dark, especially for my current generation. This is exactly what Bryony Lavery’s new play Queen Coal does – it shines an unforgiving light on the lasting tensions created by the miners’ strike of 1984 against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain. Premiering at the Studio Theatre in Sheffield, where many of the lasting tensions are still present in the industrial northern city, I was excited to see what take the prolific playwright had on it all.
Queen Coal revolves around three characters: Maggie, Justine and Ian (played by Kate Anthony, Julia Ford and David Hounslow respectively). Ian and Justine used to be married, and Maggie is Ian’s sister, whilst the two women were close friends during the events of the strike. The play is mainly set in 2013 in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death, which shook the nation and rekindled the fires of those who had been ridiculed by her government years ago. We are taken to Ian’s house, where we gradually learn that Justine walked out on her husband and best friend at a crucial time during the strike, and ultimately left them in their hour of need. In the play, Justine returns from down south in an attempt to mend the relationships that almost perished in the fires from years ago. Interspersed throughout the main plot are a few scenes that show us just how bright the fire between these three characters burned in a time that was as unforgiving as the country’s prime minister.
What follows is a powerful domestic drama that is driven forward by Lavery’s equally powerful dialogue. Each scene is almost as gripping as the last, and takes you into a world where you can subtly feel the torment, hatred and guilt bubbling beneath the surface. It’s fast-paced and engaging, and Lavery has you quietly analysing and contemplating how the characters’ relationships have developed over time, along with how they might change in the future.
What really stands out for me about Queen Coal, though, is its striking set design and use of lighting, and how the two work brilliantly well together. The set, designed by Max Jones, is both clever and beautiful: from the charred kitchen chairs to the rustic vintage sofas that the audience sits on, everything is a treat to look at. The use of lighting in the production is also powerful, and helps to strengthen the fast pace created by Lavery’s dialogue and narrative. Roaring fires and drifting ashes help to create a stunning atmosphere within, and the light slices through the drifting smoke and creates some stunning visual imagery that Lavery playfully asks you to decipher throughout.
My only gripe about the production is that, sometimes, I felt it lacked a little bit of energy, which led me to taking more of an interest in the set and lighting design than the characters and the narrative. Aside from that, though, Queen Coal is a fantastic piece of theatre that grips, engages and intrigues – and it’s sure to spark interest across the nation.
Queen Coal is at the Studio Theatre, Sheffield until 22 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.