A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE PRODUCTION
By BETH STEEL
Directed by EDWARD HALL
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval
£10 - £35 (See ticket information)
There’s 250 million years down there. A miner, he’s not just working a piece of rock, he’s working with the world…
20 Jun - 26 Jul 2014
£10 - £35
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
The Midlands, 1984. Two young lads are about to learn what it is to be a miner, to be accepted into the close camaraderie and initiated into a unique workplace where sweat, toil, collapsing roofs and explosions are all to be met with bawdy humour.
London, 1984. A conflicted Tory MP, a brash American CEO and an eccentric maverick are the face of a radical Conservative government preparing to do battle with the most powerful workforce, the miners.
As the two sides clash, the miners fight for their livelihoods and families, and the government for its vision of a free Britain. Together they change the fabric of the nation forever.
Marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike, Beth Steel’s epic and witty drama takes a 360 degree look at the clashing ideologies during the Strike in 1984 and presents the full sweep of the turbulent events that transformed the country – from the corridors of Westminster, to pitched battles with the police, to the coal faces of Nottinghamshire.
A finalist for The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Best New Play, Wonderland is Steel’s second play following the critically acclaimed Ditch (Old Vic Tunnels).
Hampstead Theatre’s Artistic Director Edward Hall directs following Sunny Afternoon(Hampstead) and the sell-out hit Chariots of Fire (Hampstead/West End).
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval.
★★★★ The Telegraph
★★★★ The Times
★★★★ The Independent
★★★★ Evening Standard
★★★★ Daily Mail
‘Beth Steel, in a commanding Main Stage debut, illuminates corners of a story you think you know but you don’t.’ David Hare, writer of The Judas Kiss, Skylight andPravda
Hampstead is on a roll. Its superb musical, Sunny Afternoon, depicting the story of that much-loved British band the Kinks transfers to the West End in the autumn and it is now fielding this gripping, darkly comic and often moving play about the miners’ strike in which Mrs Thatcher took on Arthur Scargill.
It is, of course, territory that has already been covered in that fine film and stage musicalBilly Elliot. But this play by Beth Steel, the daughter of a Nottinghamshire miner, takes us down into the pit itself in Edward Hall’s superb production with a spectacular triple-decker set by Ashley Martin-Davis. There is a scene when part of the roof collapses and a miner is injured that is astonishingly powerful and moving.
The action is set in the Midlands, where two raw 16-year-olds are introduced to the harsh working life of miners by the tough but humane pit deputy, known as Colonel because of his power of command and his splendid bright red moustache. But they have barely started work before the strike is called and the long battle that transformed industrial relations in Britain begins.
Rather bravely, Steel keeps both Mrs Thatcher and Arthur Scargill offstage, perhaps because they would have taken over the play and their background presence is in any case constantly felt. But we do meet the “wet” Energy Secretary Peter Walker and that arch Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley, along with Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor and the maverick David Hart, who attempted to persuade miners to go back to work even though it meant braving picket lines and being called scabs.
Reaction to the play will inevitably be dominated by the politics of audience members. Having lived through the Seventies and the three-day week, the miners’ strike has always seemed to me to be a battle that had to be fought and won by Mrs Thatcher’s Government. That doesn’t prevent me, however, from sympathising with the miners’ desperate fight to save their jobs and communities.
The verve and humanity of the piece are never in doubt and Hall’s gripping production often achieves great dramatic power.
Indeed with its miners’ songs and generous heart, the piece often reminded me of Bill Bryden’s great ensemble productions at the National Theatre.
There are some superb performances. Paul Brennan is deeply touching as the tough pit deputy who insists that the men on his watch look out for each other, and his speech about the dignity of hard labour, and the pride he takes in it, provides the emotional heart of the play.
David Moorst is deeply touching as the raw new recruit with a wife and baby, driven to despair when he can’t support his family. The moment when he describes killing his dog because he can’t afford to feed it is profoundly upsetting, and so, too, is the scene when we see the desperate miners scrabbling for coal on a spoil-tip to heat their homes.
The battle of Orgreave seems a bit underpopulated, but the rancour between the miners and the police, the latter goading the pitmen with all the overtime money they are making, powerfully captures the bitterness of the long dispute.
This is a play and a production of rare power and theatrical flair and one this crusty old Tory recommends wholeheartedly.
Charles Spencer, 2 July, 2014
Once identified with domestic drama, Hampstead has lately become the home for big public plays. After studies of the English civil war and the partition of India, it now brings us Beth Steel’s re-creation of the miners’ strike of 1984; and what is impressive about Steel’s play is that, while her emotional sympathies are with the miners, she also shows how they were totally out-manoeuvred by the Thatcher government.
Initially, the miners start with the advantage of a close-knit camaraderie: something vividly registered in Steel’s portrait of a Nottinghamshire colliery where two squabbling apprentices are told never to forget that “down here, your life is always in another man’s hands”. In Whitehall, however, there is a visible tension between the energy secretary, Peter Walker, who wants graduated pit closures, and the more draconian Ian Macgregor, an American-Scottish industrialist brought in to run the National Coal Board.
As the 12-month strike drags on, however, we see the fracturing of the miners’ unity and the solidifying of government intransigence. Neither Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, nor Margaret Thatcher appears in the play, but their presences are strongly felt. By failing to call a national ballot, Scargill leaves the way open for division within the coalfields: for her part, Thatcher plays a long game by stockpiling coal supplies and sanctioning an undercover agent to encourage the formation of a breakaway union. But the overwhelming impression left by Steel’s play is of the unhealed scars left by the strike. Steel goes to great pains to show the physical danger of mining and the communal spirit it engenders. But there is an immense sadness to the way strikebreaking severs old friendships. The most politically resonant scene also shows a group of pickets being intimidated by the police en route to Orgreave colliery, leaving one of them to lament: “This is England.”
While the hyperrealism of Edward Hall’s production and Ashley Martin-Davis’s design, with its overhead gantries and pit cage, is admirable, it means that clarity is initially sacrificed to activity. But individual dilemmas gradually emerge and there are strong performances all round. Paul Brennen as a pitman with a ferocious belief in the group ethic, Gunnar Cauthery as a reluctant strike-breaker, Andrew Havill as the emollient Walker and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the forgotten figure of David Hart, a Cowardesque smoothie deployed to subvert the miners’ unity, are all excellent. What is remarkable is not only Steel’s skill in resurrecting the divisions of the 1984 strike but also in showing the destruction of a proudly defiant community.
Michael Billington, 2 July, 2014
Written from the heart by a miner’s daughter, this epic drama is a flawed, grimy black diamond in the rough — blunt, tough and gleaming in the underground darkness. Marking the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike, Beth Steel’s ambitious, sprawling, impassioned play transports its audience down into the half-light and infernal heat of a Nottinghamshire pit among men who for generations risked their lives in backbreaking toil.
Meanwhile, the political elite, driven by monetarist economics and the Thatcherite ideal of the free market, lay their plans for pit closures, the hobbling of the National Union of Mineworkers and the dismantling of Britain’s coal industry. Edward Hall’s thrilling production is richly evocative and intensely moving, however, and, just as the light from the miners’ lamps slices through the murk, it turns a fiercely illuminating beam on our present. “Most of the cabinet thinks the coalfields are on Mars,” remarks Peter Walker, the energy secretary, raising a familiar sense of a political class insulated by arrogance and privilege from the effects of their actions.
Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Arthur Scargill ever appear, but their shadows loom large. On Ashley Martin-Davis’s vast, multilevel set with its coal trolleys, gantries, pit shaft and steel-cage lift, cold-blooded decision-making is set against sweat, danger and testosterone.
Scenes of miners labouring, bantering, showering off the dirt that streaks their bodies — or dangling in the lift in the dark during a power cut — collide with conversations in which they have no voice, yet which will alter their lives forever.
Alongside the government’s strategy of coal stockpiling, media propaganda and the deployment of force, we hear Ian MacGregor, the new chairman of the National Coal Board, purring about how useful unemployment is in bringing workers to heel: “It makes people scared. And scared people don’t risk losing their jobs.”
We hear plans to axe benefits for miners’ families, and, once the strike begins and builds towards the notorious Battle of Orgreave, riot shields and batons replace the brutal language with real violence.
Folk songs, of pride, peril and shared history, lend a lyricism that heightens the poignancy of the action. Though Steel’s dialogue is sometimes declamatory, the performances, from an impeccably unified ensemble, are riveting. The writing may lack polish, but Wonderlandis theatre of grit and guts.
Sam Marlowe, 3 July, 2014
One should never judge a theatre by its sets, but just sometimes stage design provides a useful sign of intent.
A mark of Hampstead Theatre’s high-flying confidence under artistic director Edward Hallis the hefty and complicated design that it has lavished on Beth Steel’s drama about the miners’ strike: a hydraulic metal pit cage moves up and down under a compelling infrastructure of overhead walkways. No wonder technical issues caused the postponement of the original opening night; at moments of high tension the whole thing looks, perhaps deliberately, like an industrial accident waiting to happen.
It was 30 years ago that the strike action which shaped modern Britain unfolded, making this a pertinent time to reflect. The crux of the issue remains as it always has, of course: an eternal struggle between emotion and economics.
Whereas other drama about this era has had a more intensely personal focus on miners’ lives, Steel, herself the daughter of a miner, aims for a slightly more cool-eyed, 360-degree overview. To this end we have spheres of action both below and above ground. For the former, we follow a group of Nottinghamshire miners forward from the induction of two new recruits, whereas in the latter key government figures plot anti-Scargill strategy. Such balance is commendable, but it does come at the expense of some heart.
Hall’s admirably kinetic production, aided by Scott Ambler’s choreography, revels in the evocation of miners at work. Amid all the bluster and banter, as well as a sturdy sense of generations of men taking pride in their jobs, we never lose sight of the fact that this is dark, dangerous work. One of the most poignant images of the second half, as the privations of the strike bite deep, is the image of the men scrabbling for scraps of coal on the surfaces of their former mines.
Intriguingly, the single most sympathetic figure on offer is Energy Secretary Peter Walker (Andrew Havill), convincingly conflicted in the face of the increasingly hard-line approach taken by National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor (Michael Cochrane) and eccentric political fixer David Hart (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), who masterminded strike-breaking from his suite at Claridge’s. It’s a sign of Steel’s chutzpah that the prologue is given to free-market economist Milton Friedman.
Wonderland is unlikely to change your views on the sobering events of 1984-85, but it serves as an eloquent reminder of the year’s importance.
Fiona Mountford, 2 July, 2014
This powerful play about the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the profound cultural change that Thatcher’s defeat of the NUM betokened comes with the endorsement of David Hare. He is quoted in the publicity as saying that “Beth Steel, in a commanding Main Stage debut, illuminates corners of a story you think you know but don’t”.
I would add that, in this piece, the 30 year old Steel, whose father is Nottinghamshire miner, also honours Shelley’s principle that art should help us to “imagine that which we know”.
For Edward Hall’s exceptionally involving – and, by the end, emotionally devastating – production, Hampstead Theatre has been reconfigured in the round with a spectacular environmental set from Ashley Martin-Davis that’s dominated by a mighty pit shaft and a cage lift. You feel as though you have been plunged down to the coal face. We follow two 16 year old lads (Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst) as they start on their first day in this Midlands mine and are gradually initiated into a subterranean world of sweat-lathered men grafting in Y-fronts, bawdy humour, explosions, collapsing roofs, communal singing, pride in family tradition, and the close cameraderie that’s vital in such dangerous work. Steel portrays this with gritty wit, strong sentiment (as opposed to sentimentality) and a poetic wonder at the vastness of geological time.
In alternate scenes featuring Peter Walker, Nicholas Ridley and the National Coal Board’s American chairman, Ian MacGregor, we see monetarism poised to bring the miners’ way of life to an end. The Thatcher government, determined to avenge the victories of 1972 and 1974, plans for a strike over pit closures and Arthur Scargill duly leads the NUM into the trap. These sworn ideological enemies and the two main protagonists in the struggle are off-stage presences in Steel’s play. An oddly potent strategy, but it allows the piece to be slightly evasive over Scargill. The damaging effects of his failure to call a ballot and the hefty price paid for his refusal to compromise are registered without being sufficiently dwelt on. We hear the recorded voice of Thatcher at the (IRA-bombed) 1984 party conference inveighing against the NUM as the enemies of democracy.
Staged by Hall with masterly control of the canvas and a large, brilliant all-male ensemble, the second half shows how the bunch of miners we’ve come to know (headed by Paul Brennen’s fiercely proud foreman) start to splinter under the conflicting pressures and bitter hardship of the year long strike. With Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the right-wing dandy maverick, David Hart, on tour sowing seeds of dissent and with the police reinforced in the set-piece battles by undercover elements, the opposition has the decided advantage.
The final section of the play is almost too painful to watch. You come to realise that Steel is locating in this symbolic moment of defeat the start of the steady erosion of workers’ rights that has resulted in the current culture of zero-hour contracts.
So on the thirtieth anniversary of the strike, this very moving play is timely in more ways than one.
Paul Taylor, 2 July, 2014
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.
Quentin Letts, 4 July, 2014
Milton Friedman/Chief of Police
Hampstead Theatre in association with The Guardian announcesTHE LIVE-STREAMING OF BETH STEEL’S NEW PLAY WONDERLAND Directed by Edward Hall Designed by Ashley Martin Davis Lighting by Peter Mumford Music by Simon Slater Choreographed by Scott Ambler Sound by Matt McKenzie
★★★★ The Telegraph | ★★★★ The Times | ★★★★ Guardian | ★★★★ The Independent | ★★★★ Evening Standard | ★★★★ Daily Mail
30 years on – the miners’ strike retold for a new generation By Paul Mason, Channel 4’s Economic Editor
Wonderland, Hampstead Theatre, review: ‘Moving and timely’ By Paul Taylor, The Independent
One of the occupational hazards of running a New Writing theatre is that family holidays are the sole opportunities for play reading marathons… Thus, the Christmas before last, I made my farewells at the theatre and set off for home with a huge pile of scripts under my arm.
Wonderland Writer Beth Steel talks to Hampstead Theatre’s Online Features Editor, Susie Benson, about the inspiration behind her new play and bringing such an ambitious story to stage
Hampstead Theatre presents the World Premiere of
Image: Chariots of Fire in the round (2012)
Photo: © John Sturrock/reportdigital.co.uk
‘Beth Steel, in a commanding Main Stage debut, illuminates corners of a story you think you know but you don’t.’ David Hare, writer of The Judas Kiss, Skylight and Pravda
Tuesday – Thursday evenings
Full price: £32/£29
Groups: For every 9 tickets get the 10th free
Monday, Friday, Saturday and matinees
Full price: £25/£22
Seniors (matinees only): £18/£15
Groups: For every 9 tickets get the 10th free
*Under 26, Jobs Seekers allowance and Student concession seats are available in rows EE, GG & Q
Audio described performance:
19 July at 3pm, with a touch-tour at 1.30pm
22 July at 7.30pm, with a transcribed post show discussion
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