A hit at Nottingham Playhouse last year, Beth Steel’s mining drama Wonderland feels equally at home on a Newcastle stage. The story is one that has been much visited – the impact of industrial decline on the working class – but it’s no worse or less effective for that. When whole communities are destroyed and ways of life discarded – leaving scars that remain to this day – there’s no shortage of tales that deserve to be told, and Steel, the daughter of a Nottinghamshire miner, has more right than most to their telling.
It’s 1983 and 16-year-olds Malcolm and Jimmy (John Booker and Joshua Glenister) have signed on for their first day at Welbeck Colliery. It’s a prospect neither are thrilled about – mining is a dirty, dark and dangerous job, and the bluff guidance of seasoned miner Colonel (William Travis) does little to alleviate their nerves – but it is a job, when such things are in short supply, and one that brings with it security, respect, and a sense of belonging in a community where the pits and the unions have long been the dominant social forces.
Little do they know that in the meeting rooms of Whitehall, schemes are already being laid to dismantle the union hold on the coal industry, plans with consequences even their architects didn’t fully foresee.
Nottingham-born director Adam Penford delivers a production that is poetic and powerful, seamed through with anger and despair. It switches deftly from the banter of the miners (when it’s so hot you’re working in your Y-fronts, you need to keep a sense of humour about you) to the machinations of politicians, where a frustrated Ian MacGregor (Robin Bowerman) just wants us all to be more like America, to the exasperation of Tory MP Peter Walker (Paul Kemp).
The show boasts a strong ensemble cast, too. Geff Francis and Giles Taylor do well in multiple roles, while Karl Haynes, Jack Quarton, and Nicholas Shaw ably round out the mining contingent.
Morgan Large’s louring set is both beautiful and bleak, skilfully managing to convey the constraints of the coalface without making the action on stage cramped or cluttered, and the atmosphere is aided by Jon Nicholls’ evocative music and sound.
The first half of the show is overlong, bogged down by too much exposition as all the pieces need to be moved into place, and the miners at first feel a little too broadly drawn, a collection of easy stereotypes, from nervous newbie to bragging lothario to grizzled old hand. But as the piece progresses, it gains both pace and power, building to the inevitable conflicts of a compelling second half.
Although it’s clearly on the side of the miners, the production also is nuanced in its support. It’s not without sympathy for the scabs, recognising that some went back to work out of political dissent, feeling unheard by their union leaders, and some were broken by long months of deprivation – but all were tarred as traitors by those left on the lines.
Despite having a female writer, it’s an unreservedly masculine production. Women are entirely absent – talked about first only as conquests to be bragged about or tentative youthful romances that are the subject of workplace teasing, but slowly morphing into the steel backbone of a strike in which they are forced onto centre stage. Even the female political figure who presided over the whole thing is only mimicked, never heard.
Yet it’s the small things that make this show such a stand-out. The play beautifully captures the strange intimacies of this hot, hellish, blue-lit landscape of men – a world where men work alongside each other in their underwear, and scrub one another’s backs in the showers. How the strike and scabbing fractured this fragile ecosystem, and how the workers had to find their way back to some level of trust afterwards – when the man at your back who might keep you alive might also be the man you blame for your side losing, the man you need to save, one you feel helped doom you all. Because underground, when the earth shifts and the rocks start to fall, there are only ever miners.
Wonderland runs at Northern Stage, Newcastle, until 9 March. More info here.