15th February, 2018, matinee
‘It’s work, int it?’
Adam Penford’s inaugural season as Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse is about as varied as you can get: Broadway musicals, new writing, modern classics and accessibly innovative co-productions. First up is the regional premiere of Beth Steel’s Wonderland, which premiered at the Hampstead in 2014. Set in the Welbeck colliery during the miners’ strike of 1983, Steel’s play has the kaleidoscopic brio of a state-of-the-nation heavyweight but it also conveys the minutiae of life in the pit, the political manoeuvres and oddities, and the effects on the community. Although we see this story from all sides, from the viciousness of the riots to the self-regard of the big wigs in London, it is at its best when showing the lives of those, literally, at the coal-face.
Similar to Chris Urch’s Land of Our Fathers (2013), we are introduced to the intimate world of red-blooded coal miners. There is a fascination to the inner-workings and politics of the workplace: the health and safety regulations, the respect for your colleagues, and the sheer graft of the job. It’s more than a job in that it defines the men, their gender politics, and the surrounding communities. And although there are apparently five women to every man in Nottingham, Wonderland has an all-male cast, but it is testament to Steel’s talent and research that she conveys the masculinity of this world with unapologetic force. We see the men bond and clash, and although this is a big play on a huge stage, we see the small worlds to which these men are confined. But revealingly, figuratively and otherwise, Steel shows the openness and familiarity of these men: it’s not just them beating their chests in a competitive display of masculinity. Yes, they work and complain together but they also act out fantasies, tell jokes, sing, shower together, and save each other’s lives. They have pride in their work.
Penford’s production does justice to the script, ensuring that the play packs dramatic clout. Morgan Large’s design viscerally takes us underground into the simultaneously vast yet claustrophobic pit. Metal shafts clang and head torch beams shine far onto the black walls which climb high and carry a hint of blue in Jack Knowles’ lighting, which again helps to illuminate the cavernous mines. This set acts as a backdrop onto which picket lines, Westminster offices and Nottingham pubs roll on, the pits there as a constant reminder of what’s being put at stake. Naomi Said’s movement helps to convey the workers’ unison, and it is all performed by a strong ensemble cast. Deka Walmsley (no stranger to mines having been in Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters) particularly stands out as the colonel. As a leader of the workforce, he may pull no punches but he also knows that a strong workforce is crucial.
I can’t quite imagine how alien the lives in this play might have seemed to a ‘typical’ Hampstead Theatre audience. Both Nottingham-raised, Penford and Steel have brought the play ‘home’ and that emotional connection to the subject matter was shown in the audience’s standing ovation. As Richard Eyre discovered when he started in Nottingham, it’s a huge nod of confidence that there is an appetite for big, ambitious, new plays that tackle still pertinent local issues and depict a recent national landscape. At the urinals afterwards, I overheard someone with a Nottingham accent go: “You wouldn’t get this down the pit. Queuing!”
|(L-R) Deka Walmsley and Nicholas Khan with the Wonderland company. Credit: Darren Bell|