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Review: In Time O’ Strife @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

With the recent prominence of Scotland and its referendum on independence in the public consciousness, one feels the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Joe Corrie’s In Time O’ Strife, adapted and directed by Graham McLaren, could have attained a rare topical relevance, with a stirring representation of humble miners from deepest Fife struggling against the might of exploitative capitalism, and frustrated by the inactivity of Westminster. Sadly, the prevalent themes of McLaren’s adaptation lack sophistication, resulting in a predictably gritty piece of theatre that never plumbs emotional depths with any lasting profundity.

John Kazek plays Jock Smith, husband to Kate (Vicki Manderson), father to Jenny (Hannah Donaldson) and Bob (James Robinson), and respected elder in a community rent apart by a sixth month-long mining strike. The plot centres on his family’s, their friends’ and the whole community’s gradual descent into poverty and desperation as a result of the Fife Mining Company’s long-running lock-out.

McLaren’s adaptation is an updated version of Corrie’s original, transferring the action from the general strike of 1926 to the miners’ strike of 1984, from the bleak austerity of the inter-war period to the poisonous individualism of Thatcher’s premiership. Such a translation is undoubtedly appropriate. Not only does it improve the piece’s accessibility, particularly for younger audiences, but it also highlights the infuriating repetitiveness of history; as McLaren astutely observes in his programme notes, ‘Corrie was writing ninety years ago when the gap between rich and poor was vast and politicians were so afraid of losing the support of big business they would sacrifice the working conditions of its labour force. So what has changed?’ What indeed?

For all its admirable commentarial intentions however, In Time O’ Strife feels too heavy-handed in its execution. Playing on society’s unresolved anger/guilt over Thatcher’s treatment of the miners, its messages are evident from the start: Thatcher is evil, Unionism has its flaws, and the ‘common man’ always comes off worst. All undeniably accurate observations, but this is a well-worn mould. There is a predictable quasi-Romeo in love with a predictable quasi-Juliet, a predictable patriarch predictably resorting to shouting and brawling to get his way, and a predictable hot-headed youth predictably seeking out trouble to the consternation of his loved ones. Dialogue is not so much naturalistic conversation, more a clichéd debate over the morality of industrial action. Where is the originality, where is the insight?

Admittedly, when heated words crystallise into rash actions, the play gains an invigorating sense of urgency and several evocative notions are aired: the uncomfortable pathos of conflict between friends, the ultimate irrelevance of manliness, and perhaps most significantly, the eternally unjust lot of Corrie’s ‘common man’. There is convincing vigour in Robinson’s angry youth and believable conviction in Owen Whitelaw’s Wull Baxter, who is prepared to go back to work for the sake of Jenny, but elsewhere there is a tangible lack of emotional sophistication.

Stylistically, In Time O’ Strife seems caught between a gritty, heavily-accented drama and an expressive piece of physical theatre. Scenes of miners arguing over their right to work are interspersed with rhythmic ensemble dance pieces. Far from blending seamlessly, these conflicting designs jar unhappily. Frequent musical numbers, courtesy of an ever-present band, add little to the atmosphere.

Ultimately, In Time O’ Strife suffers from its lack of originality. Its themes are hackneyed, its dialogue stilted and its presentation caught between two conflicting ideals. Profound and thought-provoking examination of a community in peril this is not.

2/5

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