On Behalf of the People was commissioned from The Melting Shop by the National Coal Mining Museum as part of its commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the nationalisation of the mining industry. Ray Castleton claims that it’s about the people, not the politics, but in fact, it’s about the politics as well, though the agit-prop element is tempered by measuring every political development against its human effect.
The play covers the years 1945 to 1953, but most intensely the first two of these years. Castleton has deliberately gone for recognisable types that have a strong emotional resonance with many of the older audience members.
George Mason is a miner who survived the First World War to find the land fit for heroes was a deception. A dedicated union man, he is also committed to campaigning for the Labour Party in the 1945 election, despite the onset of emphysema which two years later will take him from his job at the coal face. Connie, his wife, is inclined to accept things as “just George’s way”, but has the strength of character to bring him into line when his single-minded obstinacy gets too much. Tom, their son, returning from the Second World War, and his girlfriend, Liz, are less set in the old ways, ready to consider alternative careers, modestly aspirational.
So far, so predictable, but Castleton finds subtle variants without losing the sense of dropping in on a mining Everyman circa 1947. The relationship between father and son, almost destroyed by George blaming Tom for the elder, much-favoured son joining up and being killed, is convincingly handled. So is the role of women. Liz has to remind Tom, thinking of signing on as a regular, that the world has changed: she is a bread-winner. The play is not a simple paean to union power: Connie is shocked that George sees the loss of Jud even more as the loss of a good union man than as the loss of a much-loved son and an argument between George and Liz about the treatment of strike-breakers is remarkably even-handed.
For all that Castleton and Melting Shop’s political stance is clear enough and the audience at the Mining Museum empathised with it whole-heartedly. Charlie Kenber’s unobtrusively shrewd direction capitalises on this. The distinction between cast and audience is blurred, not by audience participation, but much more naturally. The acting area is a simple square, before the start the actors set out furniture and props, adjust the lights and chat a bit, items of clothing or props are left under audience seats for the cast to collect later.
Ray Ashcroft is outstanding as George, the authentic voice of four generations of miners, stubbornly uncompromising in good cause or bad, totally convincing in all he does, even to the manipulation of his spectacles. Kate Wood (Connie) bustles around like a less eccentric Hilda Ogden, Adam Horvath (Tom) and Lizzie Frain (Liz) both let us see their characters develop through the play. All four form a powerful ensemble, not least in the “This is my town” recital, an echo of the opening, that provides a moving finale.