Almost a Sacred Duty – New Vic Theatre

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Photo- New Vic Theatre

“Almost a sacred duty”. That was the verdict of Coroner Hugh Adams when he decided to hold the inquest into the deaths of 156 men and boys who lost their lives in the Minnie Pit disaster in Halmer End Methodist Chapel.  He could have chosen a venue in one of the larger towns of Stoke-on-Trent or Newcastle-under-Lyme. However, Adams wished as many of the local residents as possible to witness his investigation even though his choice of venue was particularly poignant after the Chapel had been used as a temporary morgue for the victims.

The quote is also the title of a short play – lasting about 60 minutes – that covers the inquest and its findings. Produced by New Vic Borderlines, the piece was the final part of the Heritage Lottery Project “Miners” that involved both professional and community actors.

With a minimalist set and props, writer Sue Moffatt and Director Anna Poole- along with the input of local historians – tell the poignant story of a small mining village whose menfolk were either involved in the pits or were away fighting in the trenches of France when an explosion struck the Minnie on January 12th 1918. And the villager’s grief was compounded by the fact that the last of the bodies – many only able to be identified because of their lamp tokens – was not recovered until twenty months after.

The writer tells the tale through the eyes and voices of three key witnesses to the story: Martha Beech who ran the corner shop on the High Street (played by Victoria Brazier); Nancy Tipper daughter of victim Frederick Tipper (Bethany Jo Clews); and Coroner Hugh Adams (Robin Simpson). Brazier and Clews both gave great sincerity to their roles as they gave an outline of what life would have been like in a fairly isolated village. They also portrayed the villagers’ feelings as the inquest wore on. Meanwhile, Simpson showed a man who not only had the gravitas required of a man in high office but also the humanity to feel sympathy for the victims and their relatives.

The community cast worked extremely well with the professionals and gave the lasting impression of a group of people who really cared about their village. However, I believe that the decision to have the bulk of the dialogue delivered by the three main characters really worked. It allowed the story to bustle along and avoided the trap of allowing the tale to fall into rage and mawkish despair.

Because there is definitely despair in the story. There had been lesser incidents that had caused loss of life before January 1918 but lessons had not been learned and the inquest found that lack of safety precautions had allowed a fatal build-up of coal dust. Yet not a single person was ever prosecuted.

Despite this, the play projects a feeling of hope. Wilfred Owen’s poem Miners formed a major part of this piece with its doom-laden lines suggesting that the Minnie Pit victims would soon be forgotten. Sacred Duty gives the lie to that gloomy forecast as the village’s memorial has fallen soldiers on one side and the mining dead on the other. And far from Halmer End being the terrible place to live as portrayed in an early twentieth century newspaper, it proves that the village is thriving with humanity and “privileged people”.

The New Vic has always been heralded for its dramas about North Staffordshire. Almost A Sacred Duty fully deserves its place on the list