DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Wonderland – Northern Stage, Newcastle

Writer: Beth Steel

Director: Adam Penford

Reviewer: Chris Collett

The 1984 to 1985 miner’s strike was one of the UK’s most bitterly fought industrial disputes. Pit communities were torn apart as some miners joined the picket lines, while others continued to work, becoming social pariahs.

Beth Steel’s Wonderland tells the story of the strike from both the perspective of the miners at Welbeck Colliery in Nottinghamshire and from that of the politicians who sought to smash the power of the trade unions and end the industrial action.

Played out on Morgan Large’s epic coal-face inspired set, Wonderland presents the strike as a clear battle between good and evil, the little guy being stamped on by the heartless machine of government, powered by free market ideology.

Steel’s miners of Welbeck Colliery are honest hard-working men, who take a fierce pride in their graft. The pit foreman, known as Colonel (played with full-blooded vigour by William Travis), is a hard taskmaster but would die for any of his team, and this loyalty is shared by his men.

On the other hand, Steel paints the politicians as mustache-twirling villains and the police as spineless bully boys who are just itching to crack a few heads. American industrialist Ian MacGregor who was brought in to close the inefficient mines is pitiless in his pursuit of economic efficiency, while Peter Walker, the energy secretary, is portrayed by Paul Kemp is a wet old school paternalistic Tory who fails to stand up to his free market-loving colleagues.

Worst of all though is David Hart, the old Etonian adviser to Margaret Thatcher who played a key role in bringing down the strike. Giles Taylor’s Hart is a charming snake in the grass, completely free of any moral compass.

While the main players on the government side are present, Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who controversially called the strike without a ballot, is conspicuous in his absence.

While Wonderland may lack nuance, it’s nevertheless a well-written, entertaining and gripping drama. The early scenes are full of comedy, as the Colonel and his men Bobbo, Spud and Fanny exchange good-natured banter and rib new arrivals Malcolm and Jimmy. But the mood gradually darkens as MacGregor firms up his plans for pit closures and the strike begins. The camaraderie that was present underground comes under pressure on the picket line as Colonel and his men fall into poverty, and one of their number refuses to strike.

Adam Penford’s direction is taut and stylised, but also earthy and naturalistic. His production really conveys the heat and claustrophobia of the mines, as well as the harsh reality of the picket lines.

Reviewed on 27th February 2019 | Image: Darren Bell

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