Wonderland: ★★★★ from the Daily Mail
Posted on 4 July 2014.
Posted in: Theatre Reviews
Wonderland, Hampstead Theatre, review
By Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail
Artistically, the Eighties miners’ strike is a much-gummed corn on the cob. The latest to have a go at it is miner’s daughter Beth Steel with her new play at the Hampstead.
She hopes to draw similarities between the strike and the current Government’s austerity savings. This goes nowhere. What the show will be noticed for is some fine acting and an exciting staging by director Edward Hall.
The in-the-round stage becomes a mine, metal grilles for a floor and piles of coal dust by the wings. A miners’ lift cage dangles from above.
The middle of the stage rises and falls on hydraulics which, during previews, proved uncooperative. The official opening had to be postponed, but when I caught the show last week everything seemed to be working fine. Miss Steel weaves high-political moments between scenes of comradely Nottinghamshire mine work.
One moment we are with a group of miners as they set off explosive charges and prop up underground cavities (there are plenty of bangs). The next we are with Mrs Thatcher’s Energy Secretary, Peter Walker (Andrew Havill), Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor (Michael Cochrane) and flamboyant Right-wing political catalyst David Hart (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart).
These non-fictional characters are faithfully sketched, though Mr Bruce-Lockhart is maybe too slim for Hart. Never mind.
I suspect most playgoers will simply be interested to learn something about the splendidly rococo figure of Hart, who claimed his Russian-Jewish ancestry gave him an empathy with non-Scargillite miners who were bullied for wanting to return to work.
Despite the play being undoubtedly Leftish in its sentiments, it is not excessively so. Walker’s one-nation Tory caution is contrasted with the mercurial Hart and the intellectual empiricism of a too-portly Nick Ridley (Paul Cawley).
These miners are led not by Scargill — is it not striking how seldom we see dramatic representation of that tinpot maniac? — but by ‘Colonel’, brave, pink-moustached, tough. Paul Brennen does not so much play this part as inhale it. Brilliant, brilliant performance. He is well supported by Simon Slater as the pit manager and by a quintet of other miners.
The ruinous cost of the miners’ strike is laid bare — the cost not only in communities but also, says Miss Steel, of policing and higher energy prices elsewhere.
There was another price to pay, for the Tories, of becoming unelectable in old mining areas. But if we were only shown more of Scargill we might be reminded how acquiescence to the militant miners might have been even more costly.
Mr Hall has made the Hampstead perhaps the most reliably interesting theatre in the country.