Mining is part of my heritage. Both of my grandfathers were involved in mining in the North East, and unfortunately my granddad on my Dad’s side was killed in a mining accident. I never knew him (I was one when he died). Any chance I get to find out more about what his life might have been like, I take. Watching Wonderland at Northern Stage, written by Beth Steel (a miner’s daughter from Nottinghamshire) gave me glimpses into this underground world of the past and brought me to tears numerous times, such was the quality of the writing, the outstanding cast and the extremely realistic coal face set.
The action started with the miners of Welbeck Colliery breaking into song, surrounded by a highly realistic set complete with the cage (to get to the coal face) and mining lamps. We meet the Colonel (a commanding William Travis) the gaffer who doesn’t mess around initiating new apprentices Malcolm (John Booker) and Jimmy (Joshua Glenister). You immediately get a sense of the camaraderie and sense of humour that was required to survive at the coal face, and how boys of sixteen were quickly forced to become men overnight.
The Welbeck miners mid-song
The action cleverly switches between the miners everyday lives and the politicans/business owners who callously call the shots when the 1984 mining strike becomes a reality. The cast impressively take on multiple roles as newscasters, police, coal board staff, bosses and miners (hats off to Geff Francis and Giles Taylor). You can tell that the writer, Beth Steel has meticulously researched both the political history and the effect that pit closures and the strike had on the miners’ lives.
I marvelled at the eagerness of these men to go down into the bowels of the earth and cringed at how some of them talked about women (a sign of the times). I laughed out loud when two of the cast came on in their Y fronts and shuddered when the cage lowering them into the earth gets stuck. What really impressed me was how Steel incorporated the complicated political posturing (played by the scarily realistic Robin Bowerman as American Industrialist Ian MacGregor, Giles Taylor as journalist/activist David Hart and Paul Kemp as Tory Minister Peter Walker), increasing the tension and leaving you wondering how the hell the politicians were allowed to get away with their heinous actions (not much has changed on that front, I suppose). The looming shadow of Margaret Thatcher was never too far away. I found it a bit tricky to keep up with the political events sometimes, such was the daily cat and mouse game that was being played. Seeing the powers that be living it up in Claridges whilst the miners were forced into poverty and desperate enough to kill their pets was particularly difficult to watch (the strain and desperation felt real).
The extremely tense picket line
There’s a hilariously funny scene with a water cooler, and a shower scene which had me in tears. The action in the mine soon moved to the picket lines, scabs versus picketers and police versus those on strike, complete with brutality, intimidation and undercover operations. The script cleverly incorporated the class issue in the UK versus the USA, the Back to Work scheme, the Women Against Pit Closures movement, the Ridley Plan (a report on how the government could defeat a major strike) and the Brighton Hotel Bombing in 1984.
The final scene, where the cast read out the shocking statistics that came out of the year long Miner’s Strike really got to me – the tears were streaming down my face. More than 187,000 miners went on strike, twenty pits were proposed for closure with the loss of 20,000 jobs and it was estimated that the total cost of the strike was £3 billion. Some miners were driven to suicide and many turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with the situation. I didn’t hesitate to jump to my feet as the performances, the writing and the set deserved nothing short of a standing ovation. A deeply moving and eye-opening tour de force.
Wonderland is at Northern Stage until Saturday 9th March. Book your tickets here
(I received two tickets in exchange for a review).
There are so many musicals that I’m a bit embarrassed to say I haven’t seen live – Les Mis, The…
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