Review: "On Behalf of the People" at The Square Chapel, Halifax

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Theatre Critic

Yorkshire based theatre company The Melting Shop claim to deliver ‘real stories that matter’ as part of their mission, and make it their goal to visit established theatre venues and communities that don’t have as much access to live theatre. Their latest offering is Ray Castleton’s new play On Behalf of the People, which premiered last year as part of the National Coal Mining Museum for England’s schedule of events to mark 70 years since the nationalisation of Britain’s coal mining industry. Having been a fan of the museum itself for quite some time, and always on the lookout for powerful, relevant pieces of theatre, I looked forward to catching the play on its stop at Halifax’s Square Chapel during its new tour.

On Behalf of the People is set in the aftermath of World War Two in a mining town carved into a valley on the ‘right side of the Pennines’ – for our Stateside readers, that’s Yorkshire, where the coal mining industry is traditionally ingrained in many towns and villages. We meet a young soldier named Tom (Danny Mellor) who’s just returned from war to his lover Liz (Lizzie Frain), his mother Connie (Kate Wood) and his father George (Ray Ashcroft). As the town and the country pieces itself back together, the coal mining industry faces new challenges as it is nationalised, and Tom faces new challenges from his stubborn father as he comes face to face with a changing industrial landscape.

Castleton’s play steadily moves along in just under two hours, full of sequences of gripping domestic conflict and tender moments of stillness as our characters find themselves at the centre of the crucible of change. Beautifully structured and poetically written, with a good handful of Yorkshire grit and stark realism thrown in for good measure, Castleton’s play conjures up an atmospheric play-world that is sensitively informed by careful research into the time period it depicts. Director Charlie Kenber squeezes every last drop of atmosphere and realistic style out of the piece to great effect, providing his audience with a directorial vision that immerses them in the piece, and places them right at the heart of the action.

The excellent cast also brings the audience closer to the heart of the action and the emotional turmoil their characters undergo, thanks to a sensitive and careful consideration of their portrayals, bringing to life some strong, memorable performances. They uphold the sense of sensitivity and artistic clarity that is woven into the very fabric of Castleton’s play – we get a tangible, respectful nod to the past, and feel as though the real people that formed the heart of Castleton’s research undertaken at the museum are sitting there with us.

That last point is clearly Castleton’s objective with the piece, reinforced by the fact that Kenber chooses to have the company of actors sit with us when they’re not performing. Yet, their physical presence you can feel when sat next to them adds a simple but highly special and sophisticated layer of performativity, and the spectator is welcomed into an overarching atmosphere that beautifully brings together the elements of time, place and space in a considered and collected way.

On Behalf of the People is a stunning, measured piece of theatre that combines moving performances with a firm sense of purpose, poise and artistic integrity that celebrates the everlasting mission of those who gave everything to the mining industry. If The Melting Shop continues to make considered theatre of this calibre, then the company will undoubtedly have an incredibly bright future ahead.

On Behalf of the People is currently on tour. For more information and tickets visit: