Review: Wonderland. Nottingham Playhouse

Wonderland returns triumphantly to Nottingham Playhouse just one year on from its regional premiere. It is testament to the significance of the story, the quality of the writing, and its dramatic realisation, that it has been revived so soon. But it is also chilling that it still feels so relevant today, over 30 years on, when politicians continue their Machiavellian manoeuvres whilst the man on the street is played like a pawn.

The story is that of the 1984 miners’ strike, told from a personal and a political perspective. Beth Steel is the author, and as a miner’s daughter herself, must have been very wary of capturing the authentic anger and pathos of the historical events. Whilst there are clearly a lot of local people in the audience who lived through it, indicated by the guffaws of laughter and angry mutterings, the detail of the story is also told through many historical figures.

Incredibly, just two actors – Geff Francis and Giles Taylor – play eight characters between them, and with a bewildering array of accents from north to south and across the Atlantic. The total cast comprises just ten men in total, and whilst most of the actors have a main character, all are used to tell the wider tale of riots and police intimidation. To a man they are impressive, 100% committed to character in heart and soul, each one coming to life with a cheeky grin or a casual swagger. The camaraderie and trust between them is a reflection of the bond between the miners underground. And with seven of the ten cast members being new from last year, it is testament to the focussed direction of Adam Penford and the rigorous rehearsal period, that this has been achieved in such a short space of time.

Jimmy and Malcolm are just 16, it’s their first day down pit. They’re nervous, excited to see the coal, anxious to crack on. Joshua Glenister and John Booker capture this mixture of emotions and innocence beautifully, and find friendship in unity against the rough banter of the older men. William Travis is the ‘Colonel’, their nemesis, an old hand there to show them the error of their ways. Travis is so assured, so grounded in his performance, you want to buy him a pint and talk about th’old days.

At the heart of the tale are Fanny and Spud, old pals, great comrades, brothers in arms, until the strike. Jack Quarton and Nicholas Shaw in these roles have the longest journey. Beth Steel’s writing here is just superb, with the men doing a mincing skit on ‘Nurse McKenzie and her healing hands’, much to the amusement of their fellow miners and the audience. It’s crude, and rude, and downright bloody funny. Quarton, as Fanny, skilfully conjures up a genuine family man who faces an impossible choice between betraying his family or his mates. Shaw moves from jocular lothario to picket-line scab in the blink of an eye and with intense feeling in both. Bobbo is played by Karl Haynes, a traditionalist with strong opinions on farting and swearing, another character beautifully realised and brought to life.

The miners’ comradeship is exhibited not only through their joking around but through song and movement. Traditional folk ballads, and choreography echoing the physical movements of mining, all serve to demonstrate the shared history and harmony of the men. This is suitably contrasted with the barren presentation of Peter Walker and Ian MacGregor, the grey suited politicians pulling the strings behind the scenes. Walker is played by Paul Kemp as a man whose trembling grasp on control and sense of fairness is ebbing away in the face of the brutality of MacGregor and latterly, Nicolas Ridley. Robin Bowerman is the gung-ho MacGregor, brought in to sort out the unions and break the strike, and captures his self-interested nature well, along with a terrifically sustained American accent.

The award-winning set design by Morgan Large is a thing of beauty. A dark, gleaming cavern of glistening black, rusting steel and subterranean lighting. It evokes the claustrophobia and oppression of working underground superbly, with the addition of a bridge and a set of stairs give it flexibility and dynamism. Fanny talks about the generations in his family that have been down pit and the mystery and awe in which it was held: the ‘wonderland’ that lies underground is fully realised here, at once exotic and bewitching, whilst also dangerous and sinister. The lighting is minimal, to reflect life underground, but used to great advantage in creating atmosphere. The echoing voices and distant screeches of machinery add further depth and realism to the evocative set.

Beth Steel’s superb script breathes life into the humanity of the story of the miners’ strike. It is heartfelt and moving, evoking all the pain and suffering of the individuals and families involved, and as such is a fitting memorial for those whose lives were changed forever. Wonderland is a powerful re-telling of historical events, with a startling relevance to political events unfolding right before our eyes. Adam Penford’s production sets light to this dark material, and makes it burn brightly through powerful performances and a blazing sense of injustice.

Wonderland runs at Nottingham Playhouse until Sat 23rd Feb

Wonderland runs at Northern Stage 27th Feb – 9th March

Photo credits: Darren Bell

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