In stage sensation Coal, a dancing Margaret Thatcher is pelted by the audience and the cast are pushed to breaking point. Edwin Gilson finds out more

IN A video documenting the making of Gary Clarke’s show Coal, some of its dancers reveal quite how demanding the audition process was.

It’s an intriguing watch because it hints at the sheer intensity of the piece, which focuses on the momentous time in the 1980s when Britain’s coal-mining industry was under threat like never before.

“It was one of the hardest auditions I’ve done,” says one of those resilient enough to make it through the trials. “There were a lot of tears. Some people left.”

“Gary pushed us to be really exhausted”, adds another hardy soul.

The choreographer, who has also worked on Hollywood films such as World War Z and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, makes no bones about his rigorous methods. His justification is that if you can’t cope with an hour of physical exertion, you really shouldn’t be in a dance piece that attempts to reflect the back-breaking work of the miners.

“The dancers I worked with had to be ready to be pushed to those physical limits,” says Gary, who brings Coal to the Brighton Dome soon. “So that if you sat a coal miner in front of it they would see their experience reflected back at them.

“It would be really offensive if it hopped, skipped and jumped around the subject. You’re dealing with people’s lives here.”

As for the wellbeing of the dancers, Gary says it is better they realised it wasn’t for them before they joined the cast (“they would have had a really miserable time otherwise”).

“If they got tired or wanted to stop or thought it was too hard in the audition, they had to self-eliminate,” he says. “They had the opportunity to leave. Many guys said, ‘this is too hard, I don’t want to put my body through this’. It’s an emotional and physical commitment.”

He can say that again. Coal sounds draining for its audience let alone those who are performing it. Told in three acts, the show first delves into the miners’ domestic lives before exploring the mines themselves.

Then there is the crucial intervention of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – who has a solo dance in the play, sometimes received by boos from the crowd – and a depiction of the strikes that were never too far away from the national headlines for two years.

Gary grew up in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire, a working-class village which eventually “fell to its knees” after the mining crisis.

His grandfather and uncle were miners. The choreographer, who graduated from the Northern School Of Contemporary Dance, said he wouldn’t have undertaken Coal if not for these personal links.

“When you talk about something as seminal as a miner’s strike you have a massive responsibility,” he says. “A lot of those people are still around today and still affected by these issues.

“If I didn’t know these people and understand them, I simply wouldn’t have touched it.”

Gary points out that some fathers and sons still don’t speak because of disagreements on the picket line in 1984 and 1985 – when some workers continued to go down the mines despite the strike, they were labelled “scabs”. As he says, “the scars runs deep”.

The choreographers big soapbox is how the collectivity and camaraderie of physical industry was – and is still being – replaced by more singular modes of work. Gary spoke to many ex-miners in the course of developing Coal and says that many of them are now taxi drivers, postmen or other solitary roles. That’s if they’re not unemployed.

“All those jobs are very singular whereas coal mining was all about solidarity,” he says. “There’s a sadness there. They’re still deeply hurt by what happened.”

And what about Gary, is he angry about the way in which industries like mining have diminished? “Yeah, but that was the whole of Thatcher’s ideology,” he says. “She didn’t believe in society or community. She was singular from a very young age.

“It makes me angry that we’ve got to subscribe to one person’s way of thinking or living. It’s ridiculous – and fascist.”

The appearance of Thatcher – or a dancer playing her, blue jacket, wig and all – in Coal has prompted a range of reactions, and not all negative.

“We’ve had people walk out in protest, things have been thrown at her, people stand up and swear,” says Gary. At this point it’s important to point out that Coal has played to a lot of ex-mining communities to date. But then there are audience members with a different agenda.

“Some Thatcher supporters come and see it, too. In post-show discussions we’ve had times where some of Thatcher’s police staff sit next to coal miners.

“This is what’s amazing about the show – it’s creating conversation.”

Gary has been in the dance business for 17 years now, but even he admits he doesn’t understand a lot of the modern dance pieces he goes to see. Far from wanting to peddle his work to long-converted dance afficionados, he wants to reach audiences without an “eduction in the arts”.

“When you mention contemporary dance to people, they don’t know what it means,” he says. “I wanted to create a really accessible show for people who have never seen dance before. We don’t want them to feel stupid when they’re watching it.”

Coal sees Gary come full circle back to his roots, which, in turn, are inseparable with mining. It’s the story of a bygone era but one whose echoes are still felt today.

“Through art we are still exploring this important subject,” says Gary. “We’re keeping it alive.”

Coal, Brighton Dome, Wednesday, March 28. For tickets and more information visit