Mining: it’s the pits. Chris Urch’s play Land of Our Fathers looks to the heart of a proud South Wales mining community; acknowledging its historical context of Thatcher and all that, but mostly digging into the more human question of what substances man (and boy) are made of when faced with danger.
Off to work go paternal old Bomber (Clive Merrison); tender Polish war veteran Hovis (Robert East); sharp-elbowed Curly (Kyle Rees); his younger brother Chewy, dreaming of London (Taylor Jay-Davies); the younger-still, naive Mostyn (Joshua Price), and socially-ambitious but conflicted leader Chopper (Patrick Brennan). A dysfunctional, tense group with more fractures than a neglected mineshaft. But a team. And a team put under the ultimate test when it gets trapped underground with only a few sarnies and a Playboy mag.
Claustrophobic? Don’t look now: Trafalgar Studio 2 is cramped enough to feel like a mine, even without men with pickaxes. Director Paul Robinson buries you in it, rubbing these sweating, charcoaled bodies right up against the front row.
At first, things are exceptionally perky; the repartee flows luxuriously, and an excellent Price ingratiates himself by chiding the group into a pop sing-song or two. ‘Know what cheers me up when I’m feelin’ down? Singing a song!’ is something nobody says, fortunately, and there’s not a single clap-along to be had.
Everything’s much more primal than that; more inquisitive. And, as Urch’s dialogue starts to rumble, there are lots of eye-catching flashes, like tantalising gems sparkling in a rock. Salacious back-stories which a more mercenary writer might have mined a whole novel out of. Some deep religious enquiry, drilled into by a bit of Beckett nihilism ‘cause all that’s above you is tonnes and tonnes of rock. ‘Waiting for God’ could have been a smart title for one vignette. ‘The Inbetweeners trapped down a mine’ would do for another, for the banter is deliriously colourful.
With homages to both The Sound of Music and the Sex Pistols, the whole first act is jovial and often spiritual; the second a coal-dark, intense watch. As the gang gets hungry and desperate, the action becomes shriller, chipping away at the senses altogether more harshly. Several times, we’re all plunged into darkness — total darkness, not even a fire escape sign in sight — making the situation all the more anxiously involving.
Things get a little rambly and surreal. Chopper does a lot of stuff in just a pair of pants. Curly narrates a bizarre dream — which, like every dream ever narrated by anyone, goes on way too long. Character monologues stack up after the interval; the idea is to enervate you into a state of agitation like the miners’ own.
Like a scene from a more bureaucratically-oriented Lord of the Flies, the crew loudly succumbs to an arbitrary squabble over who should be the leader. And then loudly succumbs some more. Not once is the sensible idea of energy conservation mooted — but then, these are old-time fossil fuel-slingers. They don’t do things by halves. And that’s why Land of Our Fathers is such a dominating piece of drama.
Land of Our Fathers runs until 4 October at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, SW1A 2DY. £15-25. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.