Play explores the emotional fall-out of the miners’ strike

Robert Shaw Cameron with Julia Ford in rehearsal for Queen Coal. The play will receive its world premiere in Sheffield next week. Picture: Mark Douet
Robert Shaw Cameron with Julia Ford in rehearsal for Queen Coal. The play will receive its world premiere in Sheffield next week. Picture: Mark Douet
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Robert Shaw Cameron is a football fan. It’s why he used a metaphor involving Arsenal and Leeds United about his latest production, but in truth, it went over my head a little.

What I did gather is that directing at the Crucible Studio is for him, as someone who was raised in Yorkshire, a home fixture – and that brings with it all kinds of added pressures and tensions. However, the home fixture sense also resonates with Cameron because the subject matter is very significant.

He is in Sheffield where he will shepherd into the light the world premiere of Bryony Lavery’s latest play Queen Coal. Set in Yorkshire, decades after the miners’ strike, it examines the impact of the unrest on relationships – an impact that can still be felt today. “This is a story that has been with me for a very long time and to bring it here feels right. There is a real buzz, a sense of anticipation. That does bring quite a lot of pressure with it.”

The play looks at the relationships of Justine and Ian – her ex-husband and Maggie, his sister, as they see each other for the first time since the strike tore them apart. Once devoted cohorts in the bitter fight for the collieries, Justine finds herself distanced from her former life and family, but still consumed with a desire to change the world. Cameron says: “I remember first coming across this story when I was about 15 or 16 and I saw a documentary about these women who had fought against pit closures in 1992. I remember watching it and thinking that those women had gone on fascinating journeys and had been irreversibly politicised. I thought it was fascinating to imagine what happened to them.”

Lavery, one of Britain’s leading women playwrights, had also wondered about those women, and who they would be today.

“Three years ago I met with Daniel [Evans, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres] and we talked about some ideas and he said that he was a fan of Bryony’s writing. It all seemed to come together perfectly,” says Cameron.

What makes this play a relevant piece of work to Sheffield in 2014? Cameron, not in a cynical way, is tapping into a zeitgeist that seems to have moved the miners’ strike back up the agenda. Not that it ever went down the agenda for many people, particularly those in the communities around the city where the play is set to premiere.

“It’s 30 years since the 1984 strikes and I think an anniversary always brings these things back to you and back into the public conscious,” says Cameron.

“I also think that the death of Thatcher did one of two things for a lot of people – either provided closure, or reignited some painful old memories and feelings.

“Bryony’s play really examines that in a way that comes from a perspective of examining what the strike did to people and to families that were never the same again.” Is there a worry that this is theatre as nostalgia?

Lavery is a fine writer, but can raking over the coals ever be a satisfying experience for a contemporary audience? Cameron believes there is much this story of recent history can tell us about today.

“We’ve arrived in a situation today where the legacy, some would argue, is that the people don’t truly have a voice. If we look back to the strikes, we realise that to challenge the status quo you have to want to change things and do things that demand you are heard,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing if this provokes people. People should be provoked.”