There was a definite buzz around Northern Stage at the press night for Wonderland, Beth Steel’s play which has been revived for a run after huge success in Nottingham last year, with theatre staff in miners’ helmets and Sing United performing “songs for those who worked on the land” outside. The play explores the miners’ strike from the perspective of a group of men working down Welbeck Colliery, as well as the political decisions of those in government at the time.
It is hard to live in the North East and not to have heard about the miners’ strike of 1984, where the government’s decision to close 20 mines was met with national industrial action, and a year-long conflict which tore the nation and families apart. As an event which still effects the North East to this day, it can be easy to say that the miners’ strike is debated to death, however Steel adds an integral voice to the argument, using the empathetic medium of the stage to cut through conservative rhetoric to explore the stories of the real men affected by these strikes.
the ensemble of ten managing to create a sense of a huge crowd
The play opens with a bang, a screen lifting to reveal Morgan Large’s stunning set, which won the UK Theatre Award for Best Design, and the ensemble emerge, singing miners’ songs. Wonderland’s use of movement and song is very impressive and was one of my favourite aspects of the play. Steel’s experience of being a miner’s daughter lends real authenticity to the play’s depiction of life down the mines, and the comradery between the characters on stage was palpable. William Travis as the “Colonel” was brilliantly formed and felt incredibly real, however I could have done with the other characters being fleshed out as much as him. By the end of the first act I did feel that the play had begun to drag a little; Steel’s commitment to showing both sides of the story started to become reminiscent of my A Level history lessons. My complete lack of sympathy for the government ministers (in part because Steel presents them in caricature, but also because they were genuinely abhorrent people) meant I wished there were fewer scenes detailing government policy and more time spent on the miners.
However, after the interval the play really picked up the pace, examining the devastating effects of the strike on the lives of miners, with the group torn apart by their differing attitudes to the strike. While the first act lent (some) space for legitimacy for everyone’s arguments, the second act planted a definitive political position which was solidified in the staging of the Battle of Orgreave, which was devastating and brilliantly done; the ensemble of ten managing to create a sense of a huge crowd. The play’s conclusion (which I won’t spoil) was incredibly poignant, and closing the play detailing the lasting effects of the strike had me leaving the theatre feeling outraged at the lack of sympathy the Thatcher government had for its own people.
While the play felt a little clunky at points, Wonderland is a brilliantly staged piece of theatre that rings with working-class pride, celebrating the dignity of hard work and the importance of brotherhood.