Pits and Perverts
9th October 2014
The 1984 Miner’s Strike was a key defining factor in Margaret Thatcher’s controversial legacy. Thousands of miners flocked to London to strike over aggressive government policy resulting in the closure of numerous mines around the country. For some, particularly those living in smaller mining towns in Wales; it was a sudden disintegration of their only livelihood. As the government retaliated by freezing the National Union of Mineworker’s funds many were hurled into further poverty, and began to rely on surrounding support groups who paired directly with towns to provide resources. Recently the influential role of the lesbian and gay community has finally come to light, providing a fascinating example of an unlikely allegiance during this time of unrest. The Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners group accumulated over £20,000 for mining families through a variety of fundraising events, most notably the ‘Pits and Perverts’ party in London’s Electric Ballroom.
Based on his own personal experience, Micheál Kerrigan’s exceptional debut play Pits and Perverts made a welcome return to the Lyric Theatre last week. Touring for a second year to mark the 30th anniversary of the strike; all the original cast returned to bring to life the handful of inspiring characters at the forefront of this peculiar, yet influential union in 1980’s Britain.
Derry born Sean (Conor Maguire) is a homosexual man who leaves Northern Ireland after the death of his friend during the Troubles to live liberated and freely explore his love for art and music in London. Living with his Canadian partner; the musical Gene (Michael Johnston) he becomes actively involved in the London LGSM. On encountering Welsh miners Rhys (Patrick Buchanan) and David (Jason Davies) at the picket line he is keen to help their plight and offers them shelter for the night – which inevitably turns to weeks. Set mostly in the domesticity of Sean and Gene’s living room, with only the outside noise of the strike occasionally channelling through the windows, Pits and Perverts is a moving and humorous spotlight on the characters’ personal journeys as they unite against a hostile mainstream society.
Much of the humour is derived from the quintessential red-blooded male miner’s initial reluctance to connect with the hospitality of their flamboyant hosts; Buchanan and Davis are terrific and provide great physical comedy to the well observed characters as they get in touch with their more sensitive sides. Michael Johnston convinces as Sean’s elegant and tender lover struggling to keep up with Sean’s driven personality and sense of social justice. Their relationship is also tested by Gene’s singing apprentice and friend Candida (Orla Mullan), hailing from Chelsea and unsympathetic to Sean or their guests generally tending to upset during most of her brief entrances. Mullan is suitably brash, but Candida felt a little too much a caricature that could have benefited from more scene time to develop more convincingly. Conor Maguire’s Sean is credibly brimming with charisma one minute and fighting against his hidden, nervous self the next.
Sean’s past in Derry is further examined and powerfully portrayed in his relationship with his deceased friend Jim (Alex Wilson), who appears to Sean at his most vulnerable as a source of strength. The play resides mostly within a vividly interpreted 80s living room. Scenes are divided well although the initial couple feel a little slow and the set changes covered with audio bulletins from the times occasionally stunt proceedings rather than connect. However Patricia Byrne’s direction is well paced and once the story develops its flow it doesn’t falter.
Produced by Derry’s Sole Purpose Productions with support from the Rainbow Project, Pits and Perverts is a great success for both organisations in the cultivation of new writers and the showcase of lesser known stories. The play has a good balance of comedy without deterring from the harsh reality faced by those involved in the strikes. True of course, to life, the NUM eventually voted to return to work and later 31,000 jobs were lost as a result of closures. The play is wrapped up well with a very real level of uncertainty as each character attempts to return to some kind of normality. Yet the true legacy of the times should be the bonds formed between those like David and Sean; later the NUM were instrumental in their support of lesbian and gay rights. The mantra of the play; Jonathan Miller’s “There is nothing but community” runs deeply throughout.