Writer: Beth Steel
Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Dave Smith
There’s no escaping the fact that how you view the events and politics of the 1983/84 miners’ strike is going to have a serious impact on how you view Beth Steel’s homage to the camaraderie and courage of Britain’s now all but disappeared mining communities. As the daughter of a Nottinghamshire miner, it’s a subject about which she is clearly both knowledgeable and passionate, and which she has captured both admirably and entertainingly on stage. Originally produced at Hampstead Theatre (not exactly at the heart of England’s mining heritage) in 2014, the play now gets its regional première in the district in which it is set.
The story itself is relatively straightforward, with elements that will be familiar to those who experienced or are aware of the period in question. Two young lads, fresh out of school and facing their first day in the pit, have barely learnt about life underground – the crude banter, the danger and the importance of looking out for your workmates – before they are called out on strike in response to the Conservative government’s closure of twenty pits. As the strike draws on, and things get harder as money gets tighter and the government gets tougher in its approach (both politically and in its use of the wider powers of the state), scenes of the miners’ struggles are interspersed by Ian MacGregor (the American industrialist called in to oversee the pit closures, played by Robin Bowerman), Energy Minister Peter Walker (Matthew Cottle) and Transport Minister Nicholas Ridley (Nicholas Khan) discussing their plans to break the miners’ union, the NUM.
In a short interview in the programme notes, Steel claims that “the only way not to fall was giving voice to different points of view”. As it happens, any attempt to paint a broader picture is essentially tokenistic – yes, the argument that the strike was not justified because there was no ballot is given an airing, but the miner who most forcefully makes it ends up clearly selling his soul to the Eton-educated toff engaged by the government to support the back-to-work movement. And Ian MacGregor and the two Conservative ministers are hardly portrayed sympathetically. Basically, there’s no mistaking which are the good guys and which the bad in this story.
Politically, then, Wonderland wears its heart on its sleeve. But does it work as a piece of theatre? To which the answer has to be yes…and no. It’s undoubtedly entertaining and at times crudely funny. There are also moments which genuinely move: when Fanny (Jack Quarton) admits that he has been to London not as a political act but to beg; when Malcolm (Chris Ashby) tells how he had to kill his dog because he couldn’t afford to feed her; and best of all, when grizzled veteran Colonel (Deka Walmsley) gives a passionate speech about his pride in being a working man.
But other elements don’t work so well, particularly the big set piece of the Battle of Orgreave (Beth Steel suggests in the programme notes that Nottingham Playhouse was working under a tighter budget than Hampstead enjoyed, which was perhaps a contributory factor). Meanwhile, Designer Morgan Large’s set struggles against the inescapable fact that mines are dark and gloomy places, and the songs that punctuate the first act, presumably there to show that the miners are part of a long and noble tradition, by the end seem to somehow belong to a different play.
That Nottingham Playhouse’s new Artistic Director Adam Penford has chosen to begin his tenure with this unapologetically political and theatrically challenging play is an encouraging statement of intent and, while not without its faults, is nevertheless a promising start to what looks like being an interesting first year.
Runs until 24 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed