Mines are dark places, unbearably hot and filled with danger. The men who work there, buried beneath hundreds of feet of earth, have no idea what’s going on above them; what the weather is like. Down there, their lives are always in another man’s hands.
The first half of Beth Steel’s new play, powerfully staged in the round at the Hampstead Theatre, is mostly set in a mine, specifically Wellbeck Colliery in Nottinghamshire, where Steel’s father worked for thirty-five years. Ashley Martin Davies’ awe-inspiring set places the audience right in the pit with the men: steel walkways snake over our heads, smoke rises from the grilles beneath our feet and coal dust falls from above. In the centre of the stage is a working cage that carries the miners to the world above, or even further down the mineshaft. Matt McKenzie’s evocative, echoing soundscape of creaks, crashes and loud explosions surrounds us, adding to the sense of danger.
Steel captures this sense of ‘another world’, with its own rules, codes and relationships. Led by the ‘Colonel’ (an excellent Paul Brennen, sporting a lurid orange moustache), the men who work ‘in pit’ are like family, or an army corps looking out for each other (‘every man and every job is important’). Steel shows how mining for these men is a way of life, an inevitability, something of a religion; they’ve grown up on pitmen stories, and the back-breaking work is a way for them to prove themselves, to become men and make their fathers proud. The dialogue is frequently punctuated with miners’ songs (‘I’m the son of the son of the son of a collier’s son’), adding to the sense of the weight of history, but the men’s lewd talk of women and nights out on the town made me wonder whether they wouldn’t also be singing more contemporary numbers.
As the men work like animals ‘three miles in’, stripped to the waist and covered in dirt, above ground the politicians, smooth in their suits and ties, are discussing pit closures. Andrew Havill is particularly good as the ‘wet’ Energy Secretary, Peter Walker, uncomfortable and conflicted, trying to advocate a more considered approach in the face of the new head of the National Coal Board Ian McGregor’s hard-line position.
The first half of the play moves swiftly, as Steel alternates between pit and government office, and the contrast between the camaraderie of the miners and the political wrangling is powerfully felt. Momentum, however, is lost in the much longer second half, in which the miners are out on strike and the politicians are plotting how to break them. Excellent at depicting the personalities and way of life ‘below’, Steel struggles in the scenes of policy-making. There’s far too much exposition and not nearly enough drama to hold our attention; we wait for the inevitable finale in the pit, but it’s a long time coming. No doubt this was what it felt like for the miners on the picket line, but a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours is simply too long here.
Though noticeably weaker, the second half is rescued by Steel’s depiction of the disintegration of the same intense bonds between the miners that she so beautifully evoked at the start of the play. As the strike draws on, the formerly opposed politicians with their radically different views on how to deal with the miners begin to come together, united against their common enemy. In contrast, the miners fall apart and turn on each other. In the absence of work and being unable to provide for their families, they lose the sense of pride and self-worth that once united them; it is deeply depressing to watch.
For the most part, Steel remains admirably even-handed for the child of a miner; only on occasion does her own voice interfere. But Wonderland strains under her attempt to present both sides of the conflict, and there is the sense that she doesn’t have a strong enough grasp of the personalities of the bigger players. Steel has said that she was initially reluctant to write about the strike and the two sides of the labour dispute – she was more interested in the work itself and the psyche of the miners. Given that Steel is clearly at her best when describing the latter, her instincts in this case seem to have bee correct.