Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Life Below, written and directed by Dec Kelly, played for the final time last night at the Union’s Pyramid Canteen theatre. The play follows two distant generations of the Gooder mining family, taking place in both the 1840s and the Thatcher-ridden 1980s. Perhaps if the performance had taken place in any other theatre, the subject would not have seemed so unusual. But in the Union - a hub of student life - I couldn’t help wondering ‘Why mining?’
When I asked Kelly after the performance, he laughed and shook his head, unsure quite why himself, and said, ‘I just liked the idea!’ He was refuting the assumption that he was writing about his own heritage; it was surely the most obvious reason. But in denying any ties at all, he revealed that there is in fact something undeniably captivating about mining stories, no matter what our own family legacies may be. For George Orwell, it was the impossible, painstaking physical demands. Even the miners’ bodies - to a communist eye, seemed socio-somatically fit for purpose. For Kelly in Life Below, though, it was all about identity - the words ‘remember where you came from’ punctuate the two storylines with the same poignant stop.
The two generations of Gooders were cleverly interwoven from the beginning. The play opened with characters reeling across the stage in a series of moments: football in the pits, laundry and lamplit gazing. Set to the remarkably apt soundtrack written by Alan Wood (lyrics include ‘I’m a miner’), it was clear we were in safe hands. The overlaid stories enhanced each other, and did more than sit side by side, stagnant and spliced arbitrarily together. Kelly’s disillusioned, mournful 1840s Gooders offset the hope and pride of the 1980s Gooders, making Rosie’s final, erudite speech at the pickets a proud swansong reclaiming the mining identity: ‘these are our lives’.
Tony (Charlie Crozier), the head of the earlier Gooder family, carried this identity around like a generational plague. A handkerchief never far from his mouth, he tells us how his father died the miner’s death - lung disease. Now, following suit, his own harsh coughs detonate ominously. The real tragedy, however, is the death of his 10-year-old son, Jack (Maeve Bannen). This signals the family’s final disenchantment with their trade. But it is also re-invoked as legend and heritage in the 80s storyline. The couple, Ted (Luke Holland) and Rosie (Maddie Bell), look toward the future of their unborn child. For them, Jack comes to symbolise a re-enchantment and reclamation of their identities and a renewed sense of belonging.
The scenes were short but that only made the play more dynamic. The rows - especially between Tony and his wife, Mary (Amy Kaye) - were explosive and nerve-shaking. The gentler moments had me near tears. Maddie Bell's Rosie pistoned a heart-wrenching mixture of hope and determination; and Luke Holland was great as the reluctant-but-dedicated miner and picketer husband. The dynamic between Jack and his sister, Sarah (Ellie Peters) was playful and energetic. (And made all the more impressive when I later found out it was strung together that day due to an absent cast member.)
The set was minimal and the lighting simple - neatly dividing the two storylines with contrasting warm and cool tones. The opening blackout struck the crowd with such force it had me wishing they had utilized this power more throughout. And there were times when I wanted the actors to slow down and give the audience a chance to really relish the play’s more beautiful moments. But apart from that, the show was polished and sophisticated. A decision, probably, to make way for the real spectacle of the story: the characters’ fight to preserve a legacy, and with it their identities. This sturdy emotional backbone made Life Below engrossing from start to finish.
Review by Rebecca Harrison