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Which years do you remember best? By that I don’t mean can you recall every detail of your existence during a particular twelve month period but which years stick out in your memory and why? I guess the ones which you remember best are those with some particular significance or during which a memorable event occurred. Obviously here at Grapevine Towers 1991 is an auspicious year and as anyone who’s studied GCSE History will tell you historians use years to define periods of study, with the years at the start and end of these periods usually containing an event of national or international significance.
Which years will be significant or era defining is not always obvious whilst we are passing through them although if 2001 (the year of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre) isn’t one of them I’ll eat Donald Rumsfeld. Here in the UK 1979 is seen as one of these fulcrum years. Foz remembers it as the year the Dukes of Hazzard debuted on TV (he still wears his Daisy Duke denim shorts every year on the anniversary) but for most of us old enough to remember, 1979 looms large due to the election of Mrs Thatcher.
Given the shadow that, in retrospect, that event casts over the year it hardly seems likely that a play set in that year has nothing to do with Mrs T entering Downing Street. Add to this the fact that the play centres on six Welsh miners trapped underground after an explosion and you’d be excused for thinking that Land Of Our Fathers, which pitches up at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal from the 16th to the 19th of this month, is a left-wing polemic serving as a metaphor for the collapse of the mining industry and the slow-suffocation of the unions. But of course, in 1979, none of that had yet come to pass and whilst the shadow of things yet to come is undoubtedly present it is the notion that things are changing which dominates this powerful piece of drama.
Initially the men wait, confident that they will be rescued: as time drags on patience frays and tempers flare. As these are working men there is plenty of banter about sex and politics. As these are Welsh working men there is some singing. In a lovely contrast, versions of My Favourite Things and Pretty Vacant are both performed.
I am unsure of any connection between the Sound of Music and 1979 but who needs an excuse to perform one of the best tunes from what is probably the best musical ever to have been written (Lloyd Webber fans may form their dissenting queue near the bins). However that year did see the death of Sid Vicious and so, whilst the idea of a close harmony version of Pretty Vacant performed by a choir of Welsh miners would have seemed the most bizarre of occurrences at the time, with what we now know came to pass it somehow seems to contain within it a strange sense of valediction. Why does it appear in this play? There’s no point in asking.
That may all sound somewhat sombre but Land Of Our Fathers is full of blistering humour, some of it as black as the seams of coal in the mine in which they are trapped. Whenever working men gather there is humour and this drama emphasises both its cohesive and divisive power. The fracturing of the powerful and the rise of yet unseen strengths within this group of men does foreshadow the political developments yet to come but the drama remains resolutely human rather than political.
Winner of the Time Out Critic’s Choice Award on debut at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival this debut work from playwright Chris Urch has been a great critical success and the theatre company responsible for the original work – Theatre503 – are those who are bringing it out on tour. There is a matinee during the run and tickets start from just £8.50. To book get along to https://www.theatreroyal.org or call the box office on 01284 769 505