It is easy to romanticise the coal-mining communities of the last century – not least when you consider the drugs and hopelessness that closure in the 1980s and 1990s left in their wake.
Edlington, an ancient village just outside Doncaster, is typical. It boomed in the early part of the 20th century as the home of the million-tonne a year Yorkshire Main. Colliers came from all over the country to work there. A way of life was built and lost in the space of a few generations.
Today, Edlington is notorious as the place of a horrifying attack by two young brothers who brutalised and tortured two even younger boys. But as Richard Cameron shows, violence always lurked under the surface – even when there were jobs. Set in the early 1960s, The Glee Club tells the story of six miners who escape the monotony of the pit through song and beer.
It is touching and tender without recourse to sentimentality, and each member of the club is complexly and convincingly sketched. Among them is Colin, a Billy Fury manqué seeing a vision of salvation in a leather jacket and a six-string Gretsch guitar. And then there is Bant, bitterly split from his wife, who expresses himself through his fists and as a singing drag queen.
But as we are introduced to the Glee Club for the first time preparing for a forthcoming gala, it quickly becomes apparent that like the industry which spawned it, the glory days are over. As Cameron makes clear, the pit communities could be supportive and creative but they were also deeply intolerant, suffocating and ultimately rejecting of those that transgress, such as Phil, the professorial mining engineer who plays the piano, helps out at the church and lives with his mum.
Sadly this production took a little while to warm up and was patchy where the jokes fell flat. The sight of so much middle-aged flesh on display in the shower scenes might not be everyone's idea of a glamorous night out.
But the play and particularly the wonderfully-realised harmonies record a chapter in working-class history that – unless you were there – few might ever know about. The yearning for something better, whether it is the warm wind of Sorrento or the freedom to be one's self, was always present in Edlington. It no doubt still is.
To 8 October (01482 323 638) then on nationwide tourReuse content