Reviewed by Nigel Chester
Wonderland, initially I thought what a strange title for a play about the miners’ strike of 1984; however, I now understand that this particular underground adventure, is full of the same madness that Alice encountered, a queen who wanted to cut off the heads of anyone who annoyed her – and in the case of the miners’ strike, it was the pitmen, and the queen was Margaret Thatcher.
Wonderland is written by Beth Steel, a Nottingham miner’s daughter, this however, is the plays regional premiere after its opening in London in 2014 and what a premiere, this audience laughed raucously and there were tears and sobs to be heard. There was a connection with the men that was palpable. Wonderland is unashamedly biased towards the miners, the politicians and police as menacing as any pantomime villain.
We open at the pithead, in the lamp room, with two sixteen year-olds on their first day at work, clearly both terrified at the prospect of ‘going down t’ pit’. The foreman introduces himself and in a bantering way, makes them feel safe, not by pandering to them, but by telling them to follow the rules and look after each other, this camaraderie has saved men for generations, not any men but the fathers and grandfathers of Jimmy and Malcolm (Joshua Glenister and Chris Ashley).
The mine itself was a character in the play, it had to be respected and understood. It fed the men and their families, but it could also kill in an instant with noxious gases or falling rock. The stage setting at Nottingham Playhouse was a vast coal face that stretched beyond the audience’s vision.
The characters are well rounded and we enjoy their humour, it’s as filthy as they are – there is no holding back in the profanities for the more genteel audience members.
We saw our lads age cleverly from terrified teenagers to young men with responsibilities, family men.
With the appearance of a desk or the ringing of a phone, our stage became an office in Whitehall, the industrialist Ian MacGregor, politicians, Peter Walker and Nicholas Ridley (Robin Bowerman, Matthew Cottle, Nicholas Khan) and the voice of a BBC correspondent giving reasoning and depth to the crisis as it unfolds. Strained relations with oil-rich Libya, as a result of the embassy shooting of Yvonne Fletcher. The IRA bombing of the conservative party conference and the impact of the public perception of both the party and its politics. There is no doubt that the miners had sympathy from certain sectors, but as it grew, legislation outlawed its actions, ordinary members of the public could not go and stand on a picket line – flying pickets were now banned. I could wholly relate to a scene where our boys were on the way to picket Orgreave Coking Plant and were stopped by the police, recalling that, during the strike, as a teenager, visiting a relative with some friends having been stopped by police and questioned about our journey, when leaving the A38 to head back to Derbyshire. How the must the Colonel and his youths have felt, and his outrage “this is England” he spits – it could have been any eastern bloc country.
Beth Steel’s play, so cleverly brought to Nottingham Playhouse by its new artistic director Adam Penfold, was a triumph for both of them.
I had a few small niggles, that for me were for me a little jarring and stopped the fully immersive experience. The use of the dry ice/smoke machine, I felt, was excessive, with myself and a number of other audience members coughing throughout – don’t worry, we were drowned out by the tears and laughter. On one occasion, a cigarette was lit, authentic, yes, at that time over 40% of the adult population smoked and it was certainly commonplace in workplaces and pubs, but in the play, one man – once, really! did it add anything? Finally the dialect, in the main, my dialect, at one point, a lovely moment where one of our lads eating his pack-up, his snap, was spoilt because his wife had put in his cobs – cobs, a word for bread rolls and now used almost daily in our house, but in 1984, he would have had a butty, made by his Mrs, cobs were posh and were for Sunday tea.
All that said, no one else seemed to notice, or more to the point, care, and the standing ovation was well deserved, even if I did at times feel like a Derby supporter sitting in the City ground.
Age Guidance: Suitable for ages 14+. Contains strong language and some nudity.
Tickets cost from £8.50 to £37.50 (booking fees may apply).
Wonderland is at the Nottingham Playhouse from 9-24 February 2018, for more information or to book tickets visit www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 0115 941 9419.
Nottingham Playhouse, Wellington Circus, Nottingham, NG1 5AF | 0115 941 9419