England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Review: ‘We’re Not Going Back’ by Red Ladder Theatre Company and Unite the Union

By Cormac Kelly Socialist Alternative West Yorkshire

Ten years ago, Unite commissioned Red Ladder theatre company to create a musical for the 30th anniversary of the 1984/85 miners’ strike. The inspiring piece of theatre has been brought back to mark 40 years since this titanic struggle. Written by Boff Whalley of the legendary band Chumbawamba, it looks at the strike through the eyes of three sisters, aided by a woman musician in a village in the heart of the South Yorkshire mining district. 

Their family squabbles and fallouts are the background to a story of defiance, resilience and determination as they are drawn into the struggle for their community’s survival as the banner with the slogan ‘Coal not Dole’ prominently displayed constantly reminds the audience.

Instead of focusing on the conflict between miners, police, judiciary and government, the musical centres on the way the struggle completely changes the sisters’ lives.

The stage is framed in a miners’ banner style setting, and action moves from a domestic sitting room to picket lines, the local miners welfare, Orgreave, a funeral of two boys killed digging for coal, a coach to a Women Against Pit Closures protest in London and a children’s Christmas party. The women organise, feed pickets, become pickets themselves, speak at meetings and travel to demonstrations.

One of Boff Whalley’s chief inspirations was Betty Cook, head of a miners family who became a leading voice in Women Against Pit Closures. On an early morning picket her knee was smashed in three places with a police baton. She went to hospital in the evening, being committed to a court visit in support of a woman who had been arrested the previous day. Loyalty to her class came first, as the musical well demonstrates in the words “we are women of the working class”.

At one point in the performance the claim is made that “comrade Blunkett will never sell us out; [he] makes Trotsky look like a boy scout”. This deeply ironic comment caused some laughter in the audience, referring to David Blunkett, a South Yorkshire Labour politician who started out on the left in local politics in Sheffield, but was later to become one of Blairs’ most loyal lieutenants, attacking teachers’ unions and hunting socialists out of the Labour Party.

In a wonderful production, the actors portray the sisters, vividly showing the energy and strength that sustained the strike and then expressing their disappointment when without the consultation of women the miners’ leaders called the action off in defeat a year later. More can be read on the lessons and legacy of the Miners’ strike here.

The musical, capturing the strong sense of class solidarity is full of hilarious and fantastic stories all of which are true, based on interviews with women involved. As well as humour there is anger at the way the press and the government treated their communities, as well as the horrendous betrayal of the miners by the TUC and Labour Party.

Covering the attack on miners at Orgreave with the song This is War, the family express their disgust at police brutality. In 2024, the struggle for justice for the miners arrested and beaten continues today. The play honours this ongoing campaign and the history of working class defiance 40 years on.

After the bitter end of the strike, it was women who held communities together, sometimes having to pick up the emotional pieces. For the sisters, their lives have been changed forever as the experience built their confidence and determination to do more with their lives. Despite it being pointed out that the working class is under more attack than ten years ago when the play was written, the play ended on an optimistic note. The same battles are being fought today with increasing ferocity, involving more women internationally than ever.


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