"The Last Miner" is the latest production from innovative theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell. In 45 extraordinary and intriguing minutes, the touching premise (that a miner unable to face the closure of the pit around which his life had centred, refuses to vacate it, but lives on underground in a world of memories, and hopeless nostalgia) is outworked through puppetry, music, lighting and set.
We first meet the miner (with the complete absence of dialogue - we never even discover his name!) living in the dank underground. With evident love and sadness, he continues to service and maintain the subterranean equipment that once drilled and transported men and coal through the caverns. Whether he hopes that one day the mine might possibly re-open, or whether he is just unable to let go of the past, we don't know - either way, he cuts a tragic and isolated figure as he toils in the darkness to keep his dream alive.
The audience is once given a window into the memory-world in which the Last Miner lives. When he takes his wife's wedding dress out of its chest for cleaning, it sparks off a dream sequence in which the past comes alive. Not only is his love still alive, but the pit is alive too, as is the community surrounding it. But dreams must end - and the reality is that despite the company of his canary and a pit pony, his days in the pit cannot go on indefinitely. Roof-falls, and bad-air threaten his existence and the Last Miner is faced with a difficult choice. He must either stay down below, clinging to the past, and memories and the way he wishes things were - a choice which will kill him. Or he must head for the surface, to face the new realities of a changing world, a world he fears, distrusts and doesn't comprehend. In the final scene he makes his greatest decision...
The play transported me back to the 1980s. Studying A-levels during the Thatcher years, I had a politically aware Geography teacher who took us to see one of the pit towns in the wake of the closure of the industry around which their whole community had revolved. Many of the people there faced The Last Miner's dilemma, (although not literally underground). Some wanted to fight to defend an old way of life, others gave up and fled the place into the uncertain outside. The play need not be interpreted so literally however. While the mining context might be a brilliant device, it could be equally be aimed at anyone facing a situation of unwelcome change; and facing haunting choices between clinging to a decaying memory or striding into an uncertain future.
What makes The Last Miner so effective in unearthing these feelings is that the story is disarmingly told through puppets. What is remarkable is the pathos and emotion that a puppet with an expressionless face is able to convey when in the control of skilled hands. Someone I was with commented that the sadness of the old miner was transmitted through the tenderness, and love with which puppeteer Arran Howie cradled and manipulated the puppet with her hands. An astute and telling observation.
I was interested in the way in which the different members of my family reacted to the play. The adults were intrigued. Our ten year old really enjoyed it - and understood what it was about. Billed as being for 7+ we didn't expect our five year old to grasp it - and it was far too subtle for her. Our 8 year old in the middle however was interested enough to be bothered that he didn't 'get it', but he had observed well enough for it to come alive in his mind with some explanation afterwards. Interestingly, on the afternoon we were there, the audience was almost entirely adult. I would say, as a parent, that it is worth taking under 10s to The Last Miner, but it might also be worthwhile giving them some explanation beforehand about the play, its themes and things to look out for.
This company's show last year was a psychedelic carnival of laughter, characters and fantasy called Twine. The Last Miner could not be more different, it is thoughtful, poignant, sombre and memorable. It deserves the good reviews it has been receiving too.
The Last Miner plays at the Hill Street Theatre, daily at 3pm (except Tuesdays).