Undermined is a play inspired by the accounts of miners who lived through the era defining UK miners’ strike of 1984-85. Originally called Shafted, the play depicts a year where friendships were strengthened and communities came together through their shared experience of incredibly difficult conditions. Young miner Dale takes the audience through his own touching story recounting the events of that particularly troubling year. Undermined explores the personal cost of the miner’s strike, but also endeavours to find some vestiges of humour among the suffering. It is all done with “a classic soundtrack, one chair and a pint of beer”.
Beginning with a critically acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015 the production has since gone on a national tour drawing huge crowds from the length and breadth of the country. The show has received considerable critical acclaim and proves that storytelling is well and truly alive. We here at culturised have caught up with Undermined’s sole actor, Danny Mellor, and its director, Ben Butcher to find out more about this intriguing new piece of theatre:
How did the project start?
Danny Mellor: It was originally a 30 minute piece I had to write at Drama School, we had to write, direct and act in our own show, so obviously I decided to do it about the miners strike… mainly because it was something I was fascinated by. I live just outside of Rotherham and the area I live in was very affected by the demise of the coalfields, and I remember when I was a kid my mum would drive me to a place called (Corton Wood) which is now a retail park, it’s got a Next, a BQ, a Morrisons… and she was like, “this is where the Miners Strike started” and I was like, “but this is Morrisons? Did they kick off with their trolleys or something?” They had announced that Pit was going to shut and then the strikes began.
So from a young age that got me interested in the strikes. I started to look into it more and had originally wanted to do a stand up comedy piece about them… but I realised that no one knew anything about it and I would have just been like, “is this thing on?” tapping away at my microphone. No one would have got any of the jokes, and originally it was going to be like a Steve Coogan-style character about the strike and there was gonna be this bit where I had a punchbag with Thatcher’s Face and every time I got angry I’d be like “damn you Thatcher”—
Ben Butcher: Thank God I didn’t direct that version of the show…
DM: So yeah, didn’t do that in the end. It turned out to be a story-telling piece, rather than a comical piece. Although it does have comedy in it, but I decided to focus more on the story than on gags and jokes. It became much more of a human story of a bloke who lived with his mates during the Miners Strike.
BB: And then you decided to phone me up two weeks before the fringe deadline and say “hey shall we make this into an hour long show”…
DM: … well we were in Manchester, and admittedly quite tipsy. I said to Ben, “I’ve got this show, I’ve just finished Drama School, my lecturer said it’s good” obviously the validation I needed, he used a positive adjective, then I said “do you want to direct it?” – Always get the director drunk. And he said yes. Two weeks before the deadline.
BB: but then I didn’t hear anything from you for several months and then he phones me up and says “yeah shall we do this?” It was important to do it at that time as it was the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the strike so we wanted to time that with developing the show further. And so Danny sent me a copy of the script, I said yes before I’d even seen it, I read it and thought it was terrible. That is mostly the way it’s written though, when Danny performed the piece in front of me, I was like “ok, I actually understand this, we’ve got something really good here.”
DM: It embodies the idea that plays are supposed to be performed not written …
BB: … it doesn’t help that you didn’t say which character is which…
DM: I didn’t put as much detail into the script because I was the only one that was going to be performing it. For me it was fine: I knew where I was!
BB: Getting to the point. We did it for the thirtieth anniversary and we did it again last year as a tour. Primarily that’s because like you said it is a human story that resonated a lot with our audiences, which is what we wanted it to be. We didn’t want it to be solely about the strike and instead something that everybody could hear. And most people from our generation don’t know much about the strike, and what it was like to live through it. It is a very poignant era, a very relevant era because there was a lot of stuff going on with the media warping the situation and what actually was happening, something we can certainly see today. And also politics, especially as we are coming back to Conservatism in its purest format, that was Thatcher’s heyday and we are very much returning to an era of austerity and dark times are ahead. Undermined proves that even in the darkest of times we can pull together and still get through.
DM: One of the other things that was crucial for me doing this play is the parallels from our generation seeing it. I know we are not experiencing the same struggles, but there are similar recurrents of the same problem going on, demonising people in unions, not asking the deeper questions about why, and also the reflective demonisation of those that went to work during the strikes, (known as scabs). The focus of anger on them rather than those causing the problem, such as those on benefits, refugees etc etc, is very similar. The story’s moral is that you are right to be angry, you’re right to be upset but focus it in the right way.
BB: It’s important to also say that this isn’t a politically driven show…
DM: … absolutely, this isn’t the communist manifesto, we aren’t going to role out Lenin at the end – as much I tried.
BB: Instead it’s about the emotional element, the story of love, friendship and loss, the things that push people apart but also bring people together.
You’ve performed at two Edinburgh Fringe Festivals alongside a national tour, what are the biggest difficulties about a one man show?
DM: Well for a start at the Fringe flyering is difficult. I used to spend two or three hours a day flyering (or at least that’s what I told Ben).
BB: But for those out there who are thinking of the plunge of your first Fringe, flyering is not the place to start.
DM: I think it is a dead art form: “do you want to come see my show… it’s not rubbish”, that’s all you can really say.
BB: You’ve got to do the basics right. The aim from a business standpoint is ultimately, how am I going to sell tickets. It is incredibly important to look professional, so press releases, and press packs are absolutely essential; it is surprising how many companies neglect these. Radio has been a huge part of the promotion for our national tour, we’ve been on Cornish radio, Sheffield, Hull, all stations where they are actively looking for content (and whose listeners are generally a theatre-going demographic with a disposable income). On top of that you have to have a social media campaign, make use of friends with particular skills too. We have a friend, Simon Diamond—
DM: —who is an absolute diamond!
BB: He directed some short adverts for the play that demonstrate Danny’s delivery style and gave some funny story’s developing little bits of script from the show so that people don’t see the same content twice and sharing this on our various social platforms worked well. It is also important to work with other companies, cross sharing and promoting through networks and this is even more pivotal at the Fringe. When we got to the fringe for our second year we didn’t put much stock in flyering at all.
DM: We came back with a lot of flyers.
BB: The Royal Mile is so busy, the best place to flyer is outside shows at your venue as audiences are coming out, catching people who if they liked another show can come back to the same venue.
DM: The biggest question you get asked is what the piece is about, something easy for us with this show: “this show is about the Miners strikes”. I love it when you ask someone about their show and they respond saying “well… it’s kind of about… errrm….”. If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or a word people aren’t going to go and see it. You need to describe your product.
BB: You’re coming back to being professional again, and having that saleability.
DM: And it’s important that people know what to expect.
BB: There is also not taking no for an answer. People are sometimes a bit afraid to ask with regards to the press, you are not going to be the only people asking, whether it’s the Fringe Review or the Guardian. Just make it polite, make it professional and give it a shot.
DM: The most you can do is not get a response. Ask, email people. We’d been emailing one magazine for months and they didn’t reply and then 2 days into the run we received an email saying they would be attending the following show.
BB: Another tip for the Fringe is being immediately recognisable.
DM: It is also a good way of targeting. If miners saw my coal not dole badge they would often initiate a discussion and the result would often be them coming along to see the show.
BB: Outside of the Fringe though it is less important. It is more about being consistent in your communications and is less about a “brand package” as such. We have maintained similar poster styles now for twelve months with only minor tweaks—
DM: —Pardon the pun
BB: I think a lot of the time you can get bogged down in creating a brand and that becomes your focus but really it’s more important to just get stuff out there and be constantly churning out content that people can engage with.
DM: You ideally want everyone to come and see your show, young, old, but sometimes you have to know your audience. Make sure you are targeting the right places. I’m not going to go to a contemporary dance studio and say “hey I’ve got this piece about the miners strike, you’re going to love it!” Or equally pop over to Theresa May’s house for a cup of tea and plug the show.
BB: Also a side note on branding if you are all wearing matching hoodies and become associated with a brand, and you had a bad run or even a bad show you become identifiable with that image. If you do a good show you are always going to be recognised for doing that good show, you don’t perhaps need such overt visibility as a company.
DM: Word of mouth over everything is the way to get people in. People have already tested the water of your show. I would not have known what Late Night Gimp Fight was had someone not have told me about it. Because people have already sifted through the filters of “this is good this is bad” word of mouth is key and that was what got our audiences in.
Undermined will be showing at Wilton’s Music Hall in London between the 21st at 25th of March, and definitely be sure to keep an eye out for further tour dates; further information and tickets can be found here.
Danny Mellor (Actor/Writer/Director): Danny is an actor from South Yorkshire where he is currently based. He recently graduated from The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama having formerly attended The University of Hull, where he studied Drama for three years. Danny met Ben in Hull where they collaborated on many projects and forged their creative bond. Danny’s main interests are in social, political, and comedic work (but also pretty much everything in between). Predominantly Danny’s work is in theatre, where he is most at home. In 2015 Danny toured a play called After The Accident with Cube Theatre, which focussed on Restorative Justice. Having worked with Paines Plough at The Gate Theatre, Danny also played the title role in Laura Lomas’s play Blister. Danny’s previous appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe was in Melanie Anne Ball’s gritty two-hander, Brush. Outside of the theatre, Danny has also played a role in the final series of David Goyer’s Da Vinci’s Demons, which airs in October. Other credits include Tender by Abi Morgan (directed by Melanie Spencer), Two by Jim Cartwright, and Everyman, a site-specific performance in which Danny played the lead role.
Ben Butcher (Director): Ben is a director from Essex and joined the Danny Mellor Presents team at the time of the project’s transition from Shafted to Undermined. The show continues his long-time collaboration with Danny having worked together with him on a number of projects at University. Having graduated from The University of Hull in 2012 with a degree in Theatre Practice. His recent directing work includes Brush by Melanie Anne Ball, which was performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2013 and on which he also worked with Danny, Insiders (a site sympathetic performance set in a disused Methodist church), and Pornography by Simon Stephens, an ensemble performance inspired by the choral ideals in Greek tragedy. Ben is primarily interested in creating immersive theatre which challenges actor audience relationships. Other directing credits include (Bye)Polar, which he wrote himself, Stockholm by Bryony Lavery, a contemporary reimagining of GAS II by Georg Kaiser, and Hard to Swallow by Mark Wheeler. Alongside his work with Danny Mellor Presents, Ben also runs a small youth theatre group and works near Cambridge.