Paul T Davies reviews Beth Steel’s play Till The Stars Come Down at the Dorfman at the National Theatre.
Till The Stars Come Down.
Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre.
31 January 2024
Bolsover, a constituency formed in 1950, on the boundary of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, their MP being Labour man Dennis Skinner from 1970-2019. A mining town decimated by Thatcher’s policies and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. Sports Direct built their massive warehouse on the site of the former colliery, Polish people move to the area, Brexit shows how much of the residents feel left behind, and their first-ever Conservative MP is elected in 2019. Summer 2023, and Sylvia, local girl, is marrying Polish Marek. Beth Steel’s wonderful new play thrums with working class humour and authenticity, with the tensions within the family and within society increasing like the heat of a hot summer’s day.
Much like her play Wonderland, the pit closures and the heritage of the industry forge Steel’s writing. The ensemble is superb, in particular Lorraine Ashbourne as everyone’s favourite wine aunty, Aunty Carol, outspoken with some zinging one liners. The three sisters, Hazel, (Lucy Black), Maggie, (Lisa McGrillis and Sylvia, (Sinead Matthews), are convincingly portrayed, grieving for their dead mother on this special day, but there are cracks in the family bond as Hazel wears her resentment like a tight-fitting dress, Maggie has moved away and Sylvia tries to capture her optimism for the future, rendered in beautiful fantastical moments. Their father, Tony, is wonderfully brought to life by granite faced and dour Alan Williams, refusing to speak to his brother Pete, (Philip Whitchurch) for over forty years. Marc Woottan makes Marek totally loveable, but also complex- controlling his simmering anger at the casual racism thrown at him.
We open the play with a glitter ball, so we know there will be dancing, but we also know there will be a fight. As the line that should never be crossed in the Miner’s strike was the picket line, there are other lines never to be crossed in 2023, and a teenager with a bottle of vodka is never a good sign. The fight scenes are choreographed with limited naturalism, lessening the shock of what happens next, and when the sisters are screaming at each other in the last ten minutes if begins to feel a little soap opera heavy. But these are minor quibbles as the family literally have welcomed us into their wedding, recognisable to us all, and director Bijan Sheibani keeps the energy and tension raised throughout. A joyous and ultimately sober evening, much like the best weddings.