This drama, written in 1926 to raise funds to support striking Scottish miners, works better as a piece of history than theatre, says Mark Brown.
It is easy to think of the “kitchen sink drama” as a genre that began in the north of England in the late Fifties with such classics as A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. However, as the National Theatre of Scotland and its associate director Graham McLaren seem determined to prove, a similar kind of social realism, focused on the travails of working-class people, emerged north of the border in the early 20th century.
In 2011, McLaren staged (for the NTS) a fine production of Ena Lamont Stewart’s 1947 play Men Should Weep; a drama of poverty in the Glasgow slums in the 1930s, which the National Theatre in London had presented, to critical acclaim, just the year before. Now he has adapted and directed In Time O’ Strife, coal miner Joe Corrie’s 1926 play, which was written as a means of raising funds to support the soup kitchens for striking Fife miners and their families.
In its depiction of the desperate hunger and the bitter conflicts of the final weeks of the dispute (which lasted far beyond the nine days of the 1926 General Strike, for seven months), the play takes on the aspect of a Greek tragedy. However, it is difficult to escape the fact that – even if one adds music, song and (in truth, pretty dubious) dance, as McLaren does here – the work is more interesting as a historical document than as a piece of theatre.
There is a heavy, polemical aspect to the script which militates against Corrie’s naturalistic intent. A miners’ discussion of the condition of the strike descends quickly into slogan and cliché. The decision to have a young child vocalist join the band seems gratuitously sentimental, given the already considerable pathos of the play.
Ironically, images of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, which are flashed on a TV screen above the stage, often prove more poignant than the drama that is played out, by a variable ensemble, below. The documentary footage evokes powerfully the swinging pendulum of power in the 20th century, from the defeat of the miners’ union in 1926, to its victory over Ted Heath’s government in 1974, to its effective demise at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and Ian MacGregor in 1985.
At Pathhead Hall, Kirkcaldy until October 12. For further information, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on October 5, 2013:
© Mark Brown