Robert Tanitch review Wonderland at Hampstead Theatre, London NW1
The premiere of Beth Steel’s Wonderland marks the 30th anniversary of the Miners Strike in 1984 and 1985. Steel’s father was a Nottinghamshire coal miner; and his in-put gives the play its authenticity.
The National Union of Miners had already taken on the government in 1926 and 1972. In 1974 they brought down the government of Edward Heath.
The 1984/1985 strike was not about pay. It was about pit closures. The action concentrates on the miners and the government and then on the police and the picket lines.
Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Arthur Scargill appears in the play; but their presence off-stage is always felt on-stage. Thatcher was determined to win. Scargill made the strategic mistake of not having a ballot.
There is a fine ensemble of actors, who with their blacked-up faces and limbs, are totally convincing. Such is the unbearable heat down the mine shaft that the men strip to their y-front underwear.
Edward Hall’s epic production packs an emotional punch, which is notable for its compassion for the impoverished and demoralised miners. The most moving scene is when the miners, scrabbling among the dirt, fail to “steal” rejected scraps of coal.
Designer Ashley Martin-Davis has converted the whole stage area into a pit shaft with hydraulic cage lift, gantries and grilled floors. The power of Wonderland is in its setting and its staging. It is not a play in the sense say John Galsworthy Strife (1909) is a play. It is a magnificent and powerful production.