Review: Orgreave: an English civil war

Category: Reviews
Published on Tuesday, 1 July 2014
Written by Brian Collier
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‘Orgreave: an English Civil War’, a production of Northern Lines, written and directed by Javaad Alipoor, reviewed by Brian Collier.

Well, the title tells you what it is about and the perspective taken, so I don’t need to go into much background detail. It was done in a small venue, Bradford’s ‘The Theatre in the Mill’, which seated about a hundred people around the acting area. Yet we were all still in the acting area, because on three sides of the room were projected iconic pictures of Orgreave: the miner with the joke policeman’s helmet, the woman apparently about to be hit by a mounted copper’s baton (she was on Woman’s Hour last week and she said that she was pulled out of the way just in time) and many others. The walls were covered by chalkboards with slogans and information graffitied onto them; the floor was radially marked by fragments from one of Javaad’s poems about Orgreave.

The scenery was sparse and merely made use of a series of boxes and shapes that were rearranged to form a living room, the House of Commons, the cabinet room, a Miners’ Welfare and the field of Orgreave itself. These boxes themselves had extracts from papers of the time printed upon them; there was no escape from the truth all this seemed to be saying.

The cast were a joy, amateurs all and disdainful of divisions of ethnicity or gender; Asians played white characters and women played men, any deficiencies of technique (few) were made up for by natural flair and energy, commitment and enthusiasm. The young Asian woman who played Thatcher, for instance, had her to a ‘T’, she needed no wig and didn’t need to try and ape that awful voice to convey the appalling arrogance and sinister disdain for democracy of the woman; just seeing and hearing her brought everything back and made me shiver.

The central character of the play in many ways was ‘Mr. Crossley’, the policeman who liaises between Special Branch and Special Forces, who had developed his techniques in Belfast, Derry, Oman, Toxteth and Brixton and was sent specifically to sort out the miners in South Yorkshire. He was played by David J. Peel, a prominent local community actor who was described in the programme as ‘actor/facilitator’, and it was a performance of much power.

Before going on to say something about the play itself, I must congratulate Javaad and his collaborators on their choice of soundtrack, comprising many songs that were used during the miners’ strike itself and others that commented upon it. One that became very important in the play was ‘Only You’ by the Flying Pickets, which David Peel himself sang during the portrayal of the ‘battle of Orgreave’ to great ironic and dramatic effect.

The play itself had at its centre a family in a mining village near Rotherham: Steve, his wife Pat (who was pregnant at the beginning of the play) and Steve’s brother Barry, who has become a policeman. The action shifts between 1984 and 2014; in the latter date Steve has died from a mining-related lung disease and Pat has become an FE lecturer. Their daughter Lisa and her friend Roman (who is the daughter of a policeman who made a lot of money out of the strike) are trying to find out what went on, but no one seems to want to talk about it. Back in 1984 Steve, initially very enthusiastic about the strike and its prospects, gradually, after many beatings and defeats on the picket line, is becoming disillusioned and is thinking of scabbing; Pat says that she’ll leave him if he does that.

Pat has become politicised and is very active in Women Against Pit Closures; she gives a very inspiring speech at the Miners’ Welfare, the miners having marched in singing ‘I’d rather be a picket than a scab’. Pat tells them of meeting women from Northern Ireland who had been protesting for human rights. ‘This is a human rights issue’, she says. The miners cheer. Steve goes to the meeting and Pat embraces him, he’s staying out!

Then there is the ‘battle’ of Orgreave and its aftermath. The first half of the play ends with Orgreave, and the way it’s portrayed with Crossley winding up the coppers and telling them what to do and how to forge statements, and then the policemen beating their shields with batons and stamping their feet was genuinely intimidating, even though you knew it was all just a part of the drama. I was on picket lines in 1984 and 1985 at Bold pit near St Helens in Lancashire (nowhere near like Orgreave) and it brought back the fear.

Steve disowns Barry because he’s a policeman, even though Barry resigns from the force. Thirty years later Barry turns up and expects to be welcomed with open arms. Pat and Lisa reject him, thus the play eschews some easy sentimentality. Scars remain unhealed. Crossley ends up in Bahrain, advising the authoritarian government there on counter insurgency.

This was a very powerful play. The actors were so committed and so powerful, playing against stereotype and making the public feel with them. I was moved almost to tears more than once and felt bitter anger quite a lot of the time. It was a brilliant example of how to present politics without overt politics being rammed down your throat. There was a fantastic ovation at the end.

After the play a former miner (accidentally portrayed in the play’s poster!) gave us a talk about what the strike felt like and how the campaign for justice was going, inspired by the Liverpool FC’s fans campaign over Hillsborough. The IPCC are inevitably dragging their feet, but he is hopeful that justice may be done in the end. I don’t know if this play will ever be produced again, but it should be and if it is go and see it. Javaad is an ISN comrade and a rare talent. He has another play, Hurr, produced at the same venue in mid July. I’m going to see that! Come if you can!

See the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign website for more information and events.