I didn’t see Beth Steel’s Wonderland when it premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 2014, but it’s impossible to imagine it getting anything like the reception that it’s receiving at its regional premiere. Adam Penford’s first production as Nottingham Playhouse’s artistic director has cannily launched his tenure with a play that runs a finger along the raw scars of wounds inflicted on Nottinghamshire in the 1980s, and which are still deeply felt. Welbeck Colliery, the play’s main setting, only shut in 2011; and when the Colliery’s banner unfurled at the conclusion of the press night performance, audience members were on their feet long before the actors left the stage.
Steel’s prose captures beautifully the camaraderie of the pit, from the breath-taking chauvinism to the blunt safety instructions. The play begins with the first day of apprentices Jimmy and Malcolm, as lead miner Colonel (Deka Walmsley) introduces them to the codes, rules and pride of working underground. The various personalities of the mine are efficiently drawn: extravagant ladies’ man Spud and his sidekick Fanny, stripped down to their underpants and always ready for a quick roleplay of their next visit to Nurse Mackenzie; stolid union man Bobbo; and proud miner Colonel, who becomes the heart of the production. Colonel is dedicated to the life above all else, explaining the pride that comes even with shovelling, and always first to enter a new hazard. On strike, later in the play, he muses on how people nod at him in the working men’s club knowing that he’s a grafter, and that there’s nothing prouder than that; the audience erupted into spontaneous applause.
Morgan Large’s set is magnificent, an imposing coal face with tunnels, tracks, gantries and rickety steel staircases. Jack Knowles’s lighting creates myriad spaces within this environment, inventively using helmet lamps, backlighting through the tunnels, and various washes to turn the single set into a constantly shifting series of locations, but with the mine itself always visible. For much of the second half, a set of imposing gates through which scabs pass is placed obstructively across the centre of the stage, workers and audience barred from the world that we’ve been patiently inducted into.
The influence of Ed Hall on the production and play is apparent (even down to the perhaps coincidental casting of Propeller alumni Tony Bell and Jamie Beamish), with its all-male, all-singing ensemble of physically capable performers; the moment when several of the company produce musical instruments from nowhere to perform a song about scabs is none more Propeller. But Penford’s direction has a unique identity of its own, particularly in the confident deployment of theatrical space. The besuited ministers and industry tsars who offer periodic – and highly satirical – glimpses into the government’s strategy against the miners emerge in spotlights, on gantries and atop mining carts, their confident disruption of the mining space an early indication of the effect they will have on the workers’ lives. And the intimate physical work of the miners as they dig and dance together allows movement director Naomi Said to transform the mundane movements of the individual worker into an expertly choreographed visual display of solidarity.
Having set up the community so effectively, the rifts among the miners are heartbreaking. When the national strike is announced without balloting the members, the hitherto comedian Spud is the first to declare he will scab, to the disgust of his comrades. The six miners strip off to shower on a gantry, and it becomes subtly apparent that while all the others are taking turns to wash each other’s backs – a simple gesture of their intimacy – Spud is showering alone and untouched. As the strike wears on, Malcolm becomes increasingly distraught at his wife’s opposition to his actions, and is forced to kill his dog; and Fanny, having become firm enemies with his former companion Spud, is himself finally driven to cross the picket line mere days before the strike ends; each of these conflicts is given respectful weight. I’m conscious that I’m reviewing this as someone who is myself about to be part of national strike action, but the play and cast uncompromisingly set out the individual and collective agonising over the consequences of going out.
And in the play’s ‘villains’, Penford and Steel offer their most scathing indictment of a Tory government trying to break the workers’ spirits. I can’t praise Jamie Beamish’s David Hart and Nicholas Khan’s Nicholas Ridley enough – the silky smooth, perfectly enunciated malice with which they executed plan after plan to undermine and break the strike is nauseatingly pitched. Even as industrialist Ian MacGregor loses his own confidence, the audacity and privilege of the politicians keeps the onslaught going. The staged riot at Orgreave sets up seemingly insurmountable odds as the miners are surrounded, framed and individually targeted. Yet the production always comes back to the dwindling group of strikers and the simply performed reassertion of the core values that hold them together: solidarity, hope, a love of work and the overwhelming golden rule – never cross a picket line. It’s a production that makes you want to scream at the injustice, to keep fighting, to look after your co-worker, to stand and salute the banner.
Wonderland is on until 24 February 2018 at the Nottingham Playhouse. Click here for more details.