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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Wonderland
Hampstead Theatre  Summer 2014

Beth Steel's new play is a docudrama – that is, essentially historically true, but with invented scenes and characters and, in this case, a definite point of view – about the Miners' Strike of 1984-1985. 

That this is ancient history to many makes it particularly valuable as documentary, though it is as documentary that it is weakest. 

Steel moves between a fictional group of miners and some actual government officials before, during and after the strike, presenting the case that Prime Minister Thatcher was less interested in coal or even the miners than in destroying the power of all labour unions in Britain. 

With the government more able to afford a long strike than individual miners, the impoverished men eventually began returning to work and the union capitulated. This ended its ability to ever ask sacrifices of its members again, and frightened all other unions from taking on the government for a generation. 

That story is clearly told, largely through scenes involving Energy Secretary Peter Walker, Coal Board Chairman Ian MacGregor and others. But it is so very one-sided that even those wholly sympathetic to it are likely to find the argument clumsy and oversimplistic. 

Meanwhile, Steel's dialogue, which can be natural and realistic, lapses into dead textbook prose whenever anyone begins setting out the facts, filling in the background or explaining the philosophical underpinnings of Thatcherism. (The same is true whenever the miners start telling each other about mining or union history.) 

Where the play is strongest is in the wholly invented scenes of the miners at work and on strike. 

Fully utilising a remarkable multi-level set by Ashley Martin-Davis that ripped the theatre apart to evoke the miners' underground world, and with inventive and evocative direction by Edward Hall and movement by Scott Ambler, the opening sequences of the play give a strong sense of the back-breaking work and constant danger but also the camaraderie and pride of the working miners. 

And the fictional miners we get to know become more rounded and real to us than the somewhat cartoonish government officials, so we believe and care about their commitment and pain. 

Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst as two youngsters who mature before us from green neophytes to strong workmen and union brothers, and Paul Brennen as the veteran who mentors them become particularly alive, individualised and sympathetic, while Andrew Havill as Peter Walker comes closest among the Whitehall figures to creating a rounded character. 

Come for the history lesson, but stay for the warm and moving drama of the working men and the impressive theatrical inventiveness that presents it.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review -  Wonderland - Hampstead Theatre 2014

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