Before anyone makes a simple error, Wonderland in no way features a character called Alice. In fact, it has no female characters of any sort (unless you count the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher). For Beth Steel’s play is about the predominantly masculine world of the miner’s strike of the 1980s; she is, herself, the daughter of a miner. It is a sobering watch as we are taken from the run up to the strike, its aftermath and the drawing of the teeth of the unions; the consequences of which are still being felt today.
Like Alice’s Wonderland, large portions of the play are set underground and the production brilliantly realises the filthy, cramped conditions in which the miner’s work. This is the second streamed play from Hampstead Theatre in a row which realises a brilliant set (see, also Wild). This one by Ashley Martin Davis features a gaping pit in the centre of the stage, high level gantries and a seemingly fully functioning elevator which carries the miners to the coal face. The set design is further enhanced by the evocative lighting of Peter Mumford using a blue wash and the miner’s lamps to create areas of shadow and menace. Edward Hall’s direction of his excellent cast is assured and drives the story relentlessly forward in a style reminiscent of left wing theatre group from the era, 7:84. The play works both as a political piece and a story of individual human endeavour, though perhaps the second half needed a little more streamlining.
At first the narrative focuses on Jimmy and Malcolm (winning performances from Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst) who are two lads going down the pit for the first time. This is a useful plot device as it serves to instruct the audience in the workings of a colliery at the same time as the characters. Touchingly naive they soon learn the harsh realities from their older more experienced colleagues as they laugh, joke and trade banter to ward off the realities of the hell that they work in. The gang of men are led in a commanding performance by Paul Brennen’s Colonel but the acting of the whole ensemble is spot on and we are soon rooting for their survival.
Paralleled to the story below ground is that of the instantly unlikeable politicians and businessmen who decided to streamline the coal industry and, in so doing, light the flames of the clash which dominated the news of the time for so long. As the camaraderie of the pit workers begins to disintegrate, the production paints a perhaps simplistic view of the two sides. However, Gunnar Cauthery’s strike breaker Spud and Andrew Havill’s Energy Minister, Peter Walker lend an extra dimension to the proceedings. Endlessly fascinating is Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s portrayal of maverick adviser David Hart who organised the anti-strike movement from his hotel suite in Claridges – a bizarre fact of which Lewis Carroll might well have been proud.
Given current circumstances one of the most chilling moments comes from the Iron Lady’s voiceover during a scene change. Taken from her speech to the party conference in Brighton after the detonation of the IRA bomb she intones “The nation faces what is probably the most testing crisis of our time” – oh yeah?
Quite different in tone and execution is Jesus Christ Superstar the fifty year old sung through musical from the then wunderkinds Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I didn’t particularly have high hopes for this show but found myself pleasantly surprised. Staged as a fully formed rock opera in the O2 Arena there is plenty of action from a vast ensemble and commanding use of video screens to keep the eye engaged. The performances are generally on the money too. Pick of the evening is Tim Minchin as cynically angry renegade Judas – a canny bit of casting as the man can really sing. Ben Forster (winner of the preceeding TV talent show search) holds the piece together, Mel C’s Mary Magdalene has less to do but does it well and a powerful climax is provided by Alex Hanson’s Pilate. The less said about Chris Moyles’ Herod, however, the better. The whole is bombastically directed by Laurence Connor – but that is what the piece needs – and provided a fitting show for the Good Friday lockdown.
Wonderland is available as part of the Hampstead Theatre At Home season here
Jesus Christ Superstar is on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go On You Tube channel here
But you need to get a wriggle on, as both are only online until April 12th!
For further online theatre suggestions and news of newly released productions please click here