Pits and Perverts
Striking Welsh miners and the emergent gay community join forces under Thatcher
At the height of the National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984, the South Wales valleys were wretched places. Once the melting pot of the Industrial Revolution, these hard-working communities were devastated by the policies of the Thatcher government and have never really recovered.
In their heyday, the vast majority of their male population were assured of a job for life, albeit one that was harsh, unhealthy and perilous. When suffocating official sanctions took effect and NUM funds were sequestered, many of these communities became the epitome of a dead end.
On arrival in some pit towns, there is no other direction to take but back down the same route. The road simply stops there. Food shortages, enforced poverty and an almost complete absence of feasible employment alternatives precipitated a shared sense of worthlessness and despair, which has permeated through subsequent generations.
This new play by first-time writer Mícheál Kerrigan mines a rich nugget of hidden history through an inspiring true story, dramatised with sincerity and fervour by a man who was there at the time.
It is produced by Derry~Londonderry-based Sole Purpose Productions, which uses theatre to examine social and public issues, and is presented in association with the Rainbow Project, set up to improve the physical, mental and emotional health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people in Northern Ireland.
The core of the play is an unlikely partnership between two oppressed groupings: the striking miners and the emergent gay community, still struggling under the cosh of repressive social attitudes and homophobic violence, frequently perpetuated by forces tasked with protecting them.
In July 1984, a group of lesbians and gay men formed the UK-wide LGSM (Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners), whose London branch linked up with the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valley Miners Support Group in South Wales.
From modest beginnings, over £20,000 was raised to help the needy families. But those efforts were far from universally approved. One outraged right-wing tabloid newspaper made reference to 'an unholy alliance of pits and perverts', a memorable phrase which lent its name to the hugely successful Pits and Perverts Ball in London's Electric Ballroom, headlined by Bronski Beat, whose lead singer Jimmy Somerville was a close friend of the late Mark Ashton, the Portrush-born co-founder of LGSM.
Like Sean (Conor Maguire), the central character of his play, Kerrigan knows all about how it feels to grow up gay in Derry at the height of the Troubles. When Jim (Alex Wilson), Sean's best friend and staunch supporter, is killed on Bloody Sunday, he takes off for London, carrying with him not only political baggage, haunting memories and a stultifying stammer, but also a passion for music and high art.
But what had made this shy, gauche young man a laughing stock in Derry will enable him to find rewarding expression and warm friendships in his new home.
Echoing the writer's own experiences, Sean flourishes in London and becomes involved with LGSM. He takes to political activism like a duck to water, and while his Canadian partner Gene (Michael Johnston) concentrates on rehearsing for his singing exams at the Conservatoire, Sean hooks up with two Welsh miners, who are members of the NUM organising committee, and invites them to stay.
Enter David (Jason Davies) and Rhys (Patrick Buchanan), glowering, monosyllabic, macho and painfully ill at ease at entering what they had not realised would turn out to be a gay household. It is excruciating to watch the two of them undressing and settling down on a sofa bed; palpable is the sense of shared terror of what the folks back home would say, if they could see them now.
But as the noose tightens on the strikers and unrest mounts on the streets, attitudes slowly thaw and soften within the walls of Stuart Marshall's cramped living room set. Only one mindset seems unlikely to change, that of their very own in-house Thatcher figure, snooty, narrow-minded Candida (Orla Mullan), Gene's singing partner, whose reactionary views reflect her affluent, comfortable Chelsea lifestyle.
It is clear that sterling work has gone into the creation of this piece, which seeks to touch many – perhaps too many – bases. It is a play brimming over with factual content and messages but, with so much ground to cover, there is a tendency to bombard the audience with a series of headlines, rather than going a little deeper into explorations of character and motivation.
Patricia Byrne's direction opts to go down a comedic route, which results in some over-reactive performance moments and a lack of dramatic atmosphere in a number of crucial scenes.
Maguire acquits himself well as bubbly, intense but terribly mixed-up Sean, whose broken speech patterns resurface at moments of heightened anxiety. Davies looks and sounds the part as David, whose sensitive inner soul is given leave to emerge and blossom in this open-minded environment, far removed from the one in which he grew up. As the son of a Welsh miner, the actor's verbal pronunciations are pretty sound – though where they found these lyrics to the legendary rugby song 'Sosban Fach' is anyone's guess.
This is a fascinating, previously untold episode, which Kerrigan has done well to put into the public domain. As a piece of drama, it is still evolving. Stringent additional script development would undoubtedly help to fill out the stereotypes and lend focus and depth to the important story lines and the ripples that spread from them.
Pits and Perverts has the potential to be an even more significant play, recalling a handful of the life-changing events that occurred under the Thatcher dispensation – the introduction of Clause 28 (which made it illegal to promote homosexuality in schools), the Hunger Strikes in the Maze Prison and, of course, the miners' strike, which ended when the protestors were starved back to work.
But, in actual fact, it did not end there. In 1992, the same Tory government closed hundreds of pits across Britain, rendering some 31,000 miners unemployed. As current news bulletins testify, the legacy lives on.
Pits and Perverts comes to the Alley Arts Centre, Strabane on October 11.