“I’m the son of a son of a son of a collier’s son, the last in a long line”
So this is actually a review of a preview, although it was not intended to be. Beth Steel’s Wonderland was meant to open on Thursday but had to delay it until next week due to “ensure the safety of the cast” which may seem a little dramatic but once you enter the Hampstead Theatre’s main auditorium, it soon becomes clear that this was no idle claim. The theatre has gone into the round again and this time, Ashley Martin Davis’ awe-inspiring design has carved out a 3-storey high pit shaft that operates at three levels. Even the act of walking to your seat (if you’re on the stage) becomes precarious as high-heeled shoes must be removed and if you don’t like heights, I wouldn’t look down…!
In a year that marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike, Steel’s play instantly feels well-timed but cleverly, it is not the play you might be expecting. The presence of Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher loom large (how could they not) but the focus lies elsewhere, in the heart of a Nottinghamshire mining community that feels the effects of the strike, and its lingering aftermath, most keenly indeed. We join the play as two lads start their first day down the pit and are initiated into its unique working ways and its all-encompassing camaraderie, right at the moment that the government has decided to take on the miners as part of a schismatic ideological shift in workers’ rights.
Through the gloom and the smoke, the first half is something spectacular. Ed Hall’s production really emphasises the tight bond of community that enabled these men to commit so passionately to such dangerous work and through bawdy banter and choral singing, it is a connection of which we’re never in doubt. Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst stand out as the apprentices for whom there was no other real choice in terms of a job and Paul Brennen’s Colonel brims with pride as he inducts them into a new way of life. As the set continues to throw out its surprises, it’s a gripping piece of near-immersive theatre, especially once the explosives start going off…
Slowly though, we’re also introduced to the other side – Andrew Havill’s conflicted energy secretary Peter Walker, Michael Cochrane’s almost kooky head of the Coal Board Ian Macgregor and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s dandy David Hart, touring the country sowing seeds of anti-strike dissent. And in the second act when we see the strike biting hard, resolve flickering on both sides and the concerted efforts to reframe the debate into something that would radically alter the nation forever, the detail may be clearer in the open air of the picket line but it loses none of its impact as the group slowly splinters under the pressure of a struggling wider community and no end seemingly in sight.
As with Scargill and Thatcher, the families of the miners are only ever mentioned, not featured, but with so much to take in in this vibrant slice of social history, the play still feels a little long particularly as the second half progresses to its final pit-set coda. But ultimately this reinforces Steel’s point, that the sense of community for which the miners fought was a double-edged sword – simultaneously to exclusion of all others around them, but also indicative of the working classes as a whole. This is not a period of which I knew much beforehand (unforgivably) so I’d imagine those with more knowledge will react differently but for me, this was a genuinely thrilling experience.