“If he will convert heathens, why does he not go to the colliers of Kingswood?” By the 18th century, Kingswood’s coal miners had earned such a fearsome reputation that the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield met with this mocking challenge.
This fine new play by Bristol actor/playwright Adrian Harris looks in on one local mining family in 1848, as the casual arrogance and indifference of their social superiors visits upon them one disaster after another.
Among the tricks in its armoury is to show the Crews of Kingswood as neither the damned souls of contemporary repute, nor noble exemplars of the dignity of labour, but something in between – decent people trying to make the best of an austere, back-breaking life and achieving mixed success along the way.
‘Deep Pit’s many other qualities include a lyrical script peppered with black comedy, a fine and committed cast, and an attention to detail that brings to vivid life a little-understood time and place in local history.
Harris’ script is excellent – the language seems perfectly pitched, lyrical and of its time yet allowing for plenty of black humour (Bridges, the mine owner’s rent collector and sometime street boxer “has a fair reputation among Bristol’s pugilists”/“Aye, but not for winning”).
The play is genuinely illuminating on life both below and above the surface for Kingswood’s mid-19th century miners – from the ‘fireman’ who went ahead of the miners to test for gas in new seams, to the stipend paid by the mine owners to the local priest to keep their workers healthy and thus productive (“the lower we bow, the deeper we dig,” is Jonathan Crew’s jaundiced summary).
Ably directed by Anna Girvan the cast, too, are excellent, from Harris’ weathered, cynical but protective paterfamilias Jonathan via Charlotte Christie’s ambitious but confused teenage daughter Mary, to Guy Warren-Thomas’ Henry Knight – aloof heir to the mining dynasty and object of Mary’s romantic confusion. In Knight we see the casual arrogance of the ruling class towards their labourers, the latter mere machines of productivity to be evicted when necessary, to be made supine by religion and to be cast off the payroll when tragedy struck.
‘Deep Pit’ scores on many levels. Great kudos to Adrian and his company for continuing to tell Kingswood stories of its past, in their theatre housed above a museum devoted to the same aim. A sharp script, fine cast and plenty of period colour, though, all lend ‘Deep Pit’ an appeal far beyond the Kingswood coal seams.
Deep Pit continues at Brass Works Theatre, Warmley until Saturday 8 November.