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The Pitmen Poets

Cast Theatre, Doncaster
Tuesday 26 January 2016

The Cast Theatre in Doncaster provided an ideal venue for this the thirteenth date of the Pitmen Poets' current eighteen date UK tour, which brings together the combined songs, stories, poems and reminiscences of four noted singers and musicians from the North East of England. With around 450 people passing through the doors of the popular Doncaster venue, the stage was set for an evening of entertainment of a different kind; songs specifically centred around a subject that is still raw in this neighbourhood.

The Pitmen Poets loomed large on the projected backdrop as people made themselves comfortable for what promised to be an uncomfortable ride. One of the broad range of emotions that such a show brings with it manifested itself as anger with the opening chant of Jez Lowe's These Coal Town Days "Howay man, they're liars and they're cheats", repeated in unison by Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Benny Graham and Jez Lowe as random archive images flashed upon the giant backdrop screen.

The show has been described as "An epic journey through the life and times of the people who made their living in the Northumberland and Durham coalfields", which pretty much sums up the show. Using the original Pitman Poet Tommy Armstrong's material as a basis for the show, such as the light-hearted music hall-inspired Stanley Market and the sobering Row Between the Cages, peppered with original songs by Jez Lowe (The Pitmen Poets, The Judas Bus) and Billy Mitchell (Shiftin' to the Toon), the variety of songs, poems and banter covered the essence of coal mining life from its beginnings to more recent events, which eventually led to the obliteration of communities. 

Although the archive photographs, etchings and film footage that dominated the backdrop were somewhat random, there were one or two moments when the footage only too accurately matched the songs, such as the moment Jez Lowe sang the opening verse of The Judas Bus, when along came an old charabanc carrying the blackleg miners through the picket lines. It has to be said that there were plenty of opportunities for collective jeering throughout the show, whenever footage of politicians and pit management popped up on screen, such as the NUM's 1984/5 propaganda poster showing Margaret Thatcher apparently stealing from the striking miners, but the Doncaster audience remained silent and thoughtful throughout, taking each image in as the moving soundtrack continued with powerful songs that resounded throughout the theatre.

It would have been a little too daunting to sit through an entire concert of such powerful and thought-provoking songs without one or two moments of light relief, ably provided by Billy Mitchell, whose reminiscences of coal mining family life - outside loos and the 'hard play areas' of Northumberland - illustrated the less serious side of coal mining life. Jez Lowe's Country influenced The Ex-Pitmen's Potholing Pub Quiz Team and Bob Fox's crowd-pleasing The Sheel Raw Flood also encouraged smiles from the stalls as their onstage banter indicated only too well that the four singers were obviously enjoying themselves just as much as the audience. A good night for the Pitmen Poets, an excellent night for Doncaster. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky

Listen to my chat with Jez and Benny here: