Badges on the fireplace. That’s all I remember of the miner’s strike.
Here bold, carbon-black slogans like ‘Coal Not Dole’ and ‘Dig Deep For Miners’ set against sun-yellow discs shouted out to me from the cold white tile top of my grandparent’s fireplace in Easington Colliery, a mining (now ex-mining) town perched on the North Eastern coastline, then an endless sweep of coal-blackened sands.
No more than four years old, these little buttons sitting at child’s eye level on the rarely-used front room fireplace are all I remember, the unilluminated grate the opposite of the ever-blazing inferno the dog and I were forever curled up by in the heavily-trampled family room out the back.
A scar on the national psyche, the consequences of the miner’s strike remain felt to this day
I missed it all. My grandparents and uncles – all lifelong miners – shielded me from the massive, brutal police presence in the town escorting workers to and from the pits, miners arrested outside colliery gates, desperate wives clinging to beaten husbands being dragged into custody.
A very young member of a new generation, we were not destined to follow our families in proud tradition down into the pits. My grandfather’s Davy lamp the closest I ever got, a brass and glass relic sitting on my mantlepiece, itself bordering a fireplace with no fire.
A scar on the national psyche, the consequences of the miner’s strike remain felt to this day. Telling the story of the industrial action that shut down the British coal industry, Wonderland – itself written by miner’s daughter Beth Steel – is a spirited, darkly comedic and tense look at this seismic event, telling the story through the crucible of Welbeck colliery in Nottinghamshire.
The talent on show is nothing short of phenomenal across the board
Here a group of veteran miners and fresh-faced new workers bicker and bond in the inky-black pit, while, in contrast, the conspiracies of a Tory MP, eccentric fop and American CEO known as ‘the butcher’ are shown driving through the Thatcherite mission to break the strike and quench the awesome power of trade unions.
In the two 16 year-olds waiting nervously at the pithead for the first descent into the dark that begins the tale, I saw a temporal echo of myself; born slightly earlier, waiting anxiously for the gaffer to arrive and take us down, eager to become a man and make my family proud of me. I was captivated immediately.
Doing true justice to the real folk on both sides who lived through the turbulent time of 1984–85, the talent on show is nothing short of phenomenal across the board, the stellar cast conjuring characters who are staggering in their humanity, a near-perfect blend of broad sketch and simmering complexity.
An award-winning cathedral of gleaming black diamond
William Travis as Colonel – the bombastic veteran miner who takes us into the belly of the beast – is the vast beating heart of the show, a brusque lion of a man with dust in his lungs and coal in his blood, a father figure and mentor blooming with honesty and nobility.
Across the ideological fence, Giles Taylor near steals the whole thing as David Hart, the dandy adviser to Margaret Thatcher who played a leading role in the anti-strike campaign. Here a gloriously greasy cad with charisma to burn, his most beautiful moments come while fencing with a sympathetic Paul Kemp as beleaguered, belligerent Tory MP Peter Walker.
While Geoff Francis shines across multiple roles (pay attention for the side-eye of the year in the bar scene), Karl Haynes’ Bobo and Nicholas Shaw’s Spud burst bellies and break hearts back at the coalface.
The reality of the people of the pits is never lost
The set is a stark and phenomenal affair. An award-winning cathedral of gleaming black diamond from Designer Morgan Large, multiple levels enable virtuoso special effects and heart-stopping production design; torch beams cutting through searing smoke, actors picked out in a blaze of high contrast chiaroscuro wonder as multiple locations are seamlessly conjured.
Though the events are over three decades hence, the politics and characters resonate powerfully today, the generational struggle of the little people against class and corporate interests continuing to hit home as tensions fulminate across the globe.
While the political turmoil could overwhelm the story, this confident, heartfelt show ensures that the reality of the people of the pits is never lost. The respect they earned through placing their lives in near-constant danger – descending into the hot, dark earth to our homes warm and their families fed – is the ever-glowing ember at the heart of Wonderland.
When I looked at my grandfather’s lamp after the show, I felt pride, and that’s a light that never goes out.
Wonderland is playing at Northern Stage until 9th March 2019.
Complimentary tickets provided by Northern Stage
Photos: Darren Bell and Keith Pattison