SALT OF THE EARTH
Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Theatre Little Easton
This is Godber in heritage mode; an autobiographical plod through the postwar years, ending in the miners' battle with Thatcher in the 80s, when the piece was written.
I'm not sure that linear chronology, with characters flagging up the year in slightly forced narration, is the most potent dramatic device. But the Greville's remarkable revival, produced and directed by Jan Ford, made the most of the play's undoubted strengths.
The music, for instance, those "old time records", 78s up in the attic, was effectively used – from The Trolley Song to Bowie – and the set, with exquisite simplicity, echoed the misty-eyed view of the pits, with flying ducks, replaced by Paul's graduation portrait, the only ornament [design by Richard Pickford and Steve Bradley].
The story centres on the Parker sisters, and traces their parallel lives from flirty dances at the Welfare Hall to frosty silence and isolation. Carol Parradine and Diana Bradley both gave outstanding performances in these demanding roles. The accent, the attitude, the clothes [Judy Lee] were all impressively convincing: Annie's raw grief as she hears of her husband's death, May's stormy love/hate relationship with her son, the writer, were strongly delineated in wonderfully sustained character work.
Their menfolk, the miners, were Adam Thompson as the father, stoically loyal to the NCB even as it destroyed his health, and Chris Kearney as Roy, killed underground just as his dream of a paper shop is about to come true.
Social mobility is one of the themes of the piece; Paul, good with words, several degrees at Sussex, leaves home, his friends and his childhood sweetheart for the Big Smoke. He had too much narration for my taste, but was engagingly played by Jonathan Scripps, who had a good feel for Godber's wry humour. Kay, the girl he left behind, was excellently done by Sonia Lindsey-Scripps. The moment, at the Silver Wedding, when she first realised that her mortgage and her microwave were no substitute for her "Milk Tray Man" was typical of a meticulous exploration of this contradictory character; there was plenty of fun, too, with early fumblings to the sound of paso doble, and the alluring promise of a taste of her Terry's Chocolate Oranges...
She also played the mysterious Cherry, the metropolitan girl who replaces Kay in Paul's affections.
Chris Plumridge was the laddish Tosh [né Edward], and Lynda Shelverton played a couple of northern neighbours.
This production was typically painstaking – I admired the stage pictures – May's first entrance with the [? Silver Cross] pram just one example – and the freezes – Harry picking up his feet for May's Bex Bissell.
The young women shouting down through the rock to their men in the mine was followed by a nicely expressionistic scene underground.
And at the end, what ? May and Harry turn sixty ["wi' nowt to look forward to"]. They share the domestic chores, he does his DIY, but there'll be no more Paris or Yugoslavia, we suspect, as her illness and her paranoia take hold. Estranged son Paul turns up on her birthday, with Cherry, an olive branch and a red rose. But she'll have none of it, and retires to her room. Then, in a strange coda, the sisters, long separated by a political tiff, are reunited; the trip to the Carvery, and the southern girlfriend, are embraced in what I suspect is an ironic happy ending, with the dramatist as deus ex machina. No such optimism for the coal industry, which seemed to believe almost to the ignominious end that "people'll always need coal". I don't know what became of the Astoria, but this Welfare Hall is, happily, now a thriving Playhouse, with Pygmalion playing this week.
Salt of the Earth's run at the Greville had sold out before opening night, testament to the reputation of the Greville and its unique auditorium, if not to the pulling power of Big John Godber.