Every now and then you get to see a play that shows you just what theatre is capable of. Beth Steel’s dad was a miner at Welbeck Colliery, and she’s written a script hewn not just from his experience, but that of generations of people in the county. It’s visceral, angry, funny, and if it doesn’t make you cry then I’m unlikely to have a drink with you any time soon.
The brilliance of the play is how it manages to have such a broad scope, while staying focused on a small group of men whose labours ensured Britain got the power that allowed people to make food, build cars, stay warm, and watch television. On that small screen we’d watch the latest developments of a strike that signalled the destruction of the union movement by a government in thrall to the notion of the free market.
American economist Milton Friedman was the theorist who Thatcher pledged allegiance to, and the play introduces him as a character early on. It’s a skilful device, allowing for wider issues to be explored, and we’re similarly introduced to the men charged by the Prime Minister with putting the miners in their place.
Part of the script’s power is how it goes from those elite players to men at the coalface whose lives are all about loyalty, who over decades have - thanks to their union - won small victories that make their lives that bit easier than those of their fathers. The danger would be of the play being polemical, but there’s a streak of humour running through it, plus a measured approach to even the villains of the piece, ensuring that Wonderland is vital and moving throughout.
It’s a story about masculinity as much as anything, exploring the way that potentially dangerous work creates a sense of community among miners. And it’s that kinship which is destroyed by a government intent on establishing its dominance through power and deceit over working class solidarity.
Designer Morgan Large does an excellent job with a set that brings the mine to life, complete with coalface, tunnels, and lift. Effective use of lighting helps translate that setting into others as the action shifts between locations.
Wonderland is at Nottingham Playhouse Friday 9 to Saturday 24 Feburary 2018.