Wonderland at Hampstead Theatre online
Wonderland, by Beth Steel, looks at the legacy of the defeat of the miners during Thatcher’s reign. Set in the midlands in 1984, the play explores the miners’ strike, an act of major industrial action to shut down the British coal industry. The Conservative government at the time wanted to defeat the National Union of Miners for two reasons: firstly, because they deemed that the mines were no longer economical to Britain; and secondly, because Thatcher wanted to break the power of the trade unions.
Steel presents an intimate, in-depth study into the lives of the real people affected by the pit closures and striking action. The audience follows the lives of two 16-year-olds (played by Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst) as they enter into the first day of the rest of their lives down the mines. The boys are initiated into the deep, unknown furnace of the Midland mine and quickly become two more faceless men: soot-covered, sweat-laden, fearlessly adopting a sense of camaraderie and loyalty. The writer portrays this through the communal singing and consistent string of pep-talks from the foreman, played by Paul Brennen. There is a sense of strong sentiment and pride in the fact that these men are taking their turn to fulfil the family tradition, making their own clan proud.
But there are those who are determined to avenge the previous victories of the last strikes in 1972 and 1974, and we also meet the opposing characters and thus opposing ideologies in this struggle. Using a different rhythm, pace and lighting, Steel introduces us to the historical figures of Nicholas Ridley, Peter Walker and Ian MacGregor. In these alternative scenes, the distinct lives of politicians and businessmen make the real battle devastatingly clear: it’s money and privilege vs. the lack of it. Director Edward Hall makes these sequences purposefully bright and spacious, allowing the protagonists to walk about the stage freely. This, compared with the cramped and dark mining environment, really drives home their position of vulnerability.
The main strength of this production is the acute staging and the overall effect created by Hall and designer Ashley Martin Davis. They so masterfully replicate the environment – or at least a strong feeling of it – that the miners all know so well. The theatre has been reconstructed in the round, with a mighty pit hole and cage lift in the middle of the stage, providing a sinking feeling that this empty space goes on forever. Different levels have been created by Martin Davis to convey the depths which the miners had to go down to in order to carry out their work. Peter Mumford enhances this through the powerful lighting of a low-lit blue-washed stage, guiding the miners as they travel into the pit. This is accented through the head torches worn on the miners’ helmets, creating authenticity but also a powerful use of shadows.
The latter part of the play sees the consequences and pressures that build due to the hardship of a yearlong strike for the workers. The final section of Wonderland symbolises the birth and death of their livelihoods in a tragic accident. Steel manages to convey the human side of the miners’ defeat in a way that is heartbreaking, but devastatingly accurate all the same.
Photo: Manuel Harlan