Fringe Online 2020
Director Edward Hall, designer Ashley Martin Davis, lit by Peter Mumford, Composer/Musical Director Simon Salter, Choreographer Scott Ambler Sound Design Matt McKenzie, Assistant Director Tom Attenborough, Design Assistants Emma Bailey Louie Whitemore Lighting Operator Tom Nixon, Costumer Supervisor Deborah Andrews Wardrobe Mistress Molly Bray Shoe Crew Simon Narciso. Till April 12th.
In a time of lockdown it’s salutary to be reminded when lockout was the worst scarring this country endured since the war. Beth Steel’s 2014 Wonderland written 30 years after the Miner’s Strike reminds us that – due to a cynical ruling party – some things never heal till there’s more wasteland than wonderland. It begs questions of recovery offering little comfort to us right now.
Yet this third Hampstead Theatre Live streaming is cause for celebration. Hampstead were first, many theatres followed. Starting ad hoc with Laure Gunderson’s I and You, Hampstead continued with Mike Bartlett’s Wild, concluding with Howard Brenton’s Drawing the Line.
Steel’s infancy was ingrained with the strike, her father a Nottinghamshire miner from Mansfield; Steel locates her play there, out of the epicentre of Yorkshire and into that dangerous battleground of the NUM versus the Union of Democratic Miners led by Roy Link.
Skilfully suggesting one character’s offered that crown, Steel at once establishes the gantry levels of rulers and quite often the cellarage deep-mine of a stage pit opening up as one great seam of drama at the climax.
The terrible divide-and-rule tore mining communities, even families apart. Yet though Steel concentrates on one small group of men she never refracts family or even personal antagonisms save through group dynamics, community feeling. Even the bosses are in thrall to each other as power shifts between them.
The brilliance of Steel too lies in suggesting no one figure under offstage Thatcher commands power for long. It looks like new American Coal Board chief Ian MacGregor will, it’s what he’s hired for; then proto-SPAD David Hart calls shots, and you think Minister wet Tory Peter Walker is sure to lose out, with all his wibble. Every power relation shifts and never ceases. It’s far wiser than suggesting monumental effigies.
Edward Hall’s direction is outstandingly fleet yet paused where necessary in its two-hours-thirteen excluding interval. Ashley Martin Davis’ breath-taking set reinforces more than just obvious power-relations.
The gantry’s striking, message stamped on what lies below. The level stage itself – sometimes covering over that perilous work area, is crossed by swinging hawsers, a working pit-lift, lit by Peter Mumford: piercing pit-lights, pitch dark, sudden haunting gleams along empty pit-helmets and a blaze of confrontation at Orgreave, the set-piece of the second act. Wild’s set shows spectacular finish, this earlier one sweeps right through in an epic vastation that’d look awe-inspiring in a theatre twice Hampstead’s size: from the occasional gentlemen’s club sofa through to fires in old oil drums to keep freezing miners warm, picking for slag. Some hope. Then the great levelling underneath. It’s a triple crown set.
Andrew Readman’s introductory role as Milton Friedman extolling neo-liberalism and a shrunk state gets readily stepped on with both feet by Michael Cochrane’s Ian MacGregor, a tour-de-force of actual quotes (he might have penned The Art of The Strip-Back) fresh from stripping back British Steel and full of pseudo-classless American can-do (he was an expatriate Scot) as Cochrane’s mix of eyeballing and familiarity reveals a more complex figure. He’s by no means the most ruthless and Steel shows the breaker nearly broken by some events by the end. He’s no politician.
Cochrane famed for suavity relishes this shaft of linear ferocity instead. What MacGregor can’t understand is that eventually he’s required only to pretend to hold talks when he believes in striking deals. It’s subtle and telling.
His initial foil’s Andrew Havill: reasonable-seeming Peter Walker visibly flinches from MacGregor’s ruthless declassé, outflanked by Paul Cawley’s main role as Nicholas Ridley, actually to the right of Thatcher hell-bent on destroying all unions, treating Walker as history too.
They’re all outdone by Claridges-living David Hart, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s study of a flaneur with a master-plan: to outflank the miners by encouraging defection. It brings him defector Spud (Darren Winters), Gunnar Cauthery’s main role, a querulous man ultimately prepared to make it outside the pits, but not quite prepared to be the public face Hart wishes. A series of attempted seductions are one mesmerising thing about the work. The coda to their relationship is as neat as one in Aln Bennett’s The Madness of George III.
But it’s the power of that knot of men, led in choric form by Simon Slater playing Ilsley’s pit manager as well as being composer/music director of memorable chants with a dark quote from one well-known. Their ritual immersion studs each moment in the inexorable decline of a way of life. The late Scott Ambler’s choreography moulds this to Slater’s hewn melodies in an unforgettable celebration and lament.
Chief is the under-manager Colonel riveted with an unforgettable tough-tenderness by Paul Brennen. He not only commands men – acting like a sergeant-major till all work’s peeled from him – but extols dignity then laments its loss – the fact of hard work conferring identity. Nigel Betts’ stalwart Bobbo is faced with impossible family choices, each breaking off a little more of his heart, even the dog. It’s impossible not to think Steel’s drawn from stories of her childhood, a land soured and betrayed far more than physically.
Cauthery’s early breakaway as a scab means he can alternate as a shifty Undercover spy – its striking how often dual roles are twinned rather than contrasted. Paul Ratray’s stolid traditional Fanny is a foil too to the newbies seen at the start: Apolitical, naïve apprentice Jimmy Ben-Ryan Davies, and – outstandingly – agitprop apprentice Malcolm David Moorst, the radical who goes on fighting after everyone’s gone. To Slater’s pit-manger bible he ripostes with equal power from Marx.
Slater reappears as a Special officer, Branch Readman’s other roles keep to authority too: Bishop Coal Board Rep and a particularly icy Met Chief finally confronted with the depth of political compromise he’s drawn to. Cawley reappears as the unenviable Daniel Hargreaves Pit security, instructed to prevent looting even slag from pits for freezing miners’ homes. Other roles are taken by Edd Muruako, Jack Pike, Guy Remy, Darius Ryan, Jack Silver, Tom Winsor as Met officers, with the recording of Jan Leeming as Newsreader.
Steels’ great power leis in not only what she leaves out – she comments on the long winnowing process – but how much she refracts through this small group of men. Language, particular skills down to handling a shovel, is both authentic and simmering, and ultimately devastatingly tender. Steel doesn’t follw say the obvious bitterness of prolonged conformation or even the hated of scabs, and her postlude delivers its own verdicts. The dramatic denouement’s unexpected and leaves us back in the heart of darkness and risk this play beats from.
Certainly the finest play that’ll ever come from the Strike, it’s surely the definitive study of the dignity of physical labour, and breaking of its amity.