REVIEW: Wonderland, Hampstead Theatre ✭✭

Wonderland at The Hampstead Theatre. Photo ©Alastair Muir
Wonderland at The Hampstead Theatre. Photo ©Alastair Muir

Hampstead Theatre
23 June 2014
2 Stars

In the programme for Beth Steel’s Wonderland, now playing at the Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall, the director of both the company and the production says:

“The events of 1984 that were the jumping off point for Beth’s story (the Scargill led miners’ strike) are complicated to understand, and quickly lead to arguments amongst friends. Her play doesn’t simplify and it avoids narrow polemic – instead there is a genuine attempt to understand all the key parties’ motivations whilst keeping her “wonderland” below at the heart of the matter…this is the right time to present what we consider an important play, a play I hope will provoke as much discussion amongst its audience as it has in the rehearsal room.”

Hall should receive a Doctorate in Spin for that effort.

Firstly, the play does simplify every aspect of its topics, from the concept of camaraderie underground, to the notion of Union solidarity and raison d’être, to the reasons why the Government wanted to smash the Union and the politics at play within the Conservative party. Steel’s approach makes superficiality seem a concept to which she is devoutly attached.

The writing is incoherent and absent of either fire or heart. It’s a cold, stupid and desultory wander through stock situations and cardboard characters.

Secondly, it embraces narrow polemic rather than avoids it. The vicious ruthless architects of the plot pontificate about their ideals; the hearty brave and simple miners talk and work hard, running endlessly in dank corridors of tradition; the wise old Union man smells betrayal; the young father puts his family before his colleagues. It’s all so utterly predictable and trite. Not an ounce of insight has been whipped into this theatrical pancake.

Thirdly, there is no genuine attempt to even understand one viewpoint. None of the characters are given enough to do to make them interesting and involving, either saint or sinner. The sketchy folk depicted simply shout or snarl their platitudes and priorities without any notion of humanity or reality.

Brassed Off and Billy Elliot covered this sort of ground with wit and style. Steel’s script is devoid of both.

Fourthly, on the strength of the conversations heard when we were there, the discussion provoked amongst the audience is limited to three topics: What is that set about? Why is it so darkly lit? Don’t they know we have to care about someone to want to come back after interval?

Ashley Martin-Davis, the designer, has made an impressive steel structure replicate the feel of being inside a mine. There is no dirt or ground, just metal, although some dangling white bags seemed filled with gravel, ready for the inevitable cave-in. There is a steel cage which rises and falls to give some sense of the daily grind of the miners and upper catwalks. But it is all metal, noisy and hard. It does not convey the sense of dank gloom that mines do; it seems more like a Borg spacecraft hold than an underground mine in England.

And it is quite incapable of permitting other spaces. Meetings of lofty Conservatives take place on the same set, a small table and a whisky decanter meant to convey the trappings of power.

There is no doubt the set is quite an achievement. But it does nothing to help make the play work.

Peter Mumford’s lighting is so astonishingly bad it must have been a deliberate decision of director and designer. It is not possible to actually see the faces, eyes or expressions of any of the miners, upon whose shoulders the bulk of the action rests. What one cannot see cannot be the subject of proper empathy. Working in near BlackHole darkness may be effective for moments, but as a template it is unendurable.

So bad is the design and the lighting, that it is really impossible to have any informed opinion about the performances. It is impossible to tell the actors apart, such is the gloom and the make-up simulating mud and grime.

The responsibility must rest with Hall. This is a lacklustre effort in every way – about as far from the triumph that was his Chariots of Fire staging as can be imagined. It’s unceasingly uninventive and desperately dull. And the cast shout endlessly.

There are sequences when the men chant/sing incomprehensible lyrics to silly almost-tunes. Quite why is never comprehensible.

Act One ends, inexplicably, with a curious scene where the miners, having been brought to the strike unexpectedly and without a vote, and faced with the prospect of no income and crossing the picket lines, inexplicably undress and scrub each other’s backs, showering off the grime. Gratuitous does not come close.

Wonderland is the title and wonder is exactly what you do as you rush for the street. Wonder what Hall was thinking.

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