May 29, 2017

Laughing in the face of adversity with Shafted at @northernstage, Newcastle

Hard-working miner and supportive wife

Shafted by Thatcher face a life of strife

From coal miner to window cleaner to banana counter to gnome painter, Harry and his wife Dot (played by real-life couple John Godber and Jane Thornton) have seen it, done it and worn the I Hate Margaret Thatcher, The Milk Snatcher T-shirt. As the title suggests, the play is inspired by the miners’ strike of 1984-85. But unlike popular films such as Billy Elliot, Brassed Off and more recently Pride which were set predominantly during the height of the troubles, Shafted, though using the immediate aftermath of what the BBC described as “the most bitter industrial dispute in British history” as its starting point, is more concerned with the long-term effects of Conservative anti-trade union and privatisation policies as Harry and Dot struggle to make ends meet over the following not one, not two, but three decades and like “two spent swimmers, that do cling together / And choke their art” almost go under.

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Almost, but not quite. Because despite facing financial hardship, physical illness, relationship problems, the curse of the black dog and the usual “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” which accompany family life, what they possess is something which no politician or business person can buy or break – spirit! A spirit to endure, a spirit to fight, a spirit to stick together through thick and thin and a spirit to spit in the face of their enemies and laugh in the face of adversity. And laugh they do, as does the audience, from one dry one-liner to another as hapless Harry and doting Dot trade insults and sweet-nothings during a series of snappy duologues and confessional monologues which span the best part of two hours. A spirit which builds up to and is epitomised by Harry’s rallying war cry at the end of the play: “C’mon! We’ll take them all on!
There’s not much in the way of set and the play’s all the better for it, relying instead on the quality of the writing and the talent of the performers to hold the attention and provoke titters and thought – a few miners’ banners suspended from the ceiling; a green garden gate to denote the division between us and them, private space and public face; and a small crop of flowers at either side of the stage which are living proof that even in the  harshest of climates there is always the possibility that green shoots of personal if not economic recovery can break through the hard earth and blossom. And the soundtrack, like the humour, is a blast of eighties disco to noughties pop which charts Harry and his ever-faithful wife Dot as they upsticks from Upton to Bridlington where they start afresh as B&B owners who sip Cava by the sea.

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But what really hits home are the devastating and long-term effects of Thatcher’s brand of all-for-one and one-for-oneself Conservatism as famously set out in her 1997 interview for Woman’s Own: “there is no such thing as society”. There is. And if the gap between the richest and the poorest continues to widen, and the rhetoric of “workers” versus “shirkers” continues to pass as parliamentary discourse, and the worrying trend of low-paid and low-skill jobs and short-term and zero-hour contracts continues to become the norm, and the obscene practice of corrupt politicians lining their pockets with enough bungs and parliamentary expenses to clean a moat and morally bankrupt billionaires mooring their yachts in whichever tax haven will harbour their illicit financial flows continues to be swept under the luxury carpets of Whitehall and the City, then in the words of the Kaiser Chiefs: I predict a riot!

Verdict: 4/5

by Peter Callaghan

Northern Stage

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