Wasteland – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Skylar Mabry

Music: Charles Webber, Daniel Thomas, and Steven Roberts

Writer: Lewey Hellewell

Director: Gary Clarke

Wasteland starts off with a dark stage and a low rumble, as a lone dancer stumbles through the space. It’s a poetic solo which adeptly evokes the deep grief, anger, and sense of uselessness that some attempted to wash away with alcohol after losing their livelihoods when the mines were closed. Eventually, the solo dancer is joined by four older men who represent the miners after the closure of the pits. We’re shown archival footage of the closing of a colliery in 1995 and the five men sing a sombre song accompanied by two brass players (Anna Spedding and Ian McCormick). The singers and musicians retreat, and the solo dancer slinks to a square of carpet upstage with a chair and a TV, where he will remain for most of the rest of the show.

Next comes the youth. They are first introduced with hoods up, showing aimlessness as best they can while also executing strictly choreographed dance moves. We are then shown the tense relationship between a father (the solo dancer from the beginning) and son, who fight but ultimately will care for each other. The boy finds his coping mechanism for his pent up rage and aggression through rave music, and the teens return, setting up their own illegal rave. What follows is around 35 minutes of choreographed raving, ending in a protest against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.

The show draws parallels between the miners’ strikes of the 80s and the protests against anti rave legislation in the 90s and ends with a dark tableau showcasing the emptiness and despair against which generations of people have battled and continue to battle today. Gary Clarke, choreographer, and Artistic Director of the Gary Clarke Company, has created a show which wants to be cathartic, bold, urgent, and authentic but instead feels like an attempt to recreate his own past success.

The show is a sequel to an earlier piece, Coal, which tells the story of the miners in Gary Clarke Company style, but integrated women from mining communities in the creation and performance of the piece. Wasteland is marketed as modern dance alongside a community cast of singers, which sounds like an integration similar to Coal. What instead comes through are the pitfalls of contemporary dance – so much focus is spent on the technicality of the dance that the intricacy of the narrative and care for the community are lost. Wasteland’s community cast of singers, also known as the Pit Men, are used sparingly, and brought on only to punctuate the moments where the audience is supposed to remember that miners protested too. The choreography, while beautiful and excellently executed, takes precedence over the story.

There are still parallels and relevance to this work today – current UK legislation attempts to restrict our right to protest, health and transport workers striking – but this show remains firmly rooted in the past. However, there is value in recognising and looking back, and Clarke has implemented some excellent elements in this piece. The two brass players sound incredible, the community singers do a fantastic job, and the dancers must be commended for their graceful capability and stamina. If you were a raver during the 90s, then this piece might hold meaning in your own reminiscence (the music and sound design by Steven Roberts, Daniel Thomas, and Charles Webber will certainly get you moving). Wasteland has all the right elements to become a pillar of modern creativity, but it falls short. Be prepared: if you weren’t a raver, this show might not be for you.

Runs until: 19 May 2023

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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