Review: Wonderland


by Hope Liebersohn

Beth Steel was the daughter of a Nottinghamshire miner, and her play about the miners’ strike of 1984-5 at the Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage runs until 26 July only, and is well worth a visit. You’ll get an insight into the cold, determined cabinet minister, Nicholas Ridley and the Coal Board boss, American Ian McGregor, cynical but talking about compromises, always overruled by Margaret Thatcher. She never appears, but she was determined to break the power of the union that had brought down the Heath government before her. Milton Friedman, the economist, has a walk-on part at the start, but the rest of the play is not about economics but a brutal power struggle.

minersCompletely unknown to me was the incredible character of David Hart, who spent some of his own fortune persuading men to go back to work, bribing them, and helping set up the tame Union of Democratic Mineworkers in opposition to the National Union of Mineworkers. This character (“He lives in Claridges, for God’s sake,” remarks Ridley) is so pompous, absurd and ruthless I thought he was made up, but a quick check on the net shows he was absolutely real, and ended up working in the shadows of the defence industry.

The designer Ashley Martin-Davies conveys the heat, dirt, noise and close confines of working in the pits, as well as the humour, comradeliness, the danger and mutual respect and loyalty that was crucial to the work. For some, the decision to strike without a ballot felt undemocratic; for others, the pressure to put food on the table, and the approach of Christmas, broke their resolve. Scargill, like Thatcher, never appears, but views on his leadership underlie the men’s various positions.

The strike dragged on despite extreme hardship for many of them, with little food, no entitlement to benefits, and no way to keep their families warm. A heartbreaking (and accurate) scene shows strikers and their children gathering coal from the sea: dirty, cold work for small amounts of low-grade fuel, only to be stopped by a security guard terrified of losing his job, told they were stealing Coal Board property, and forced to go home with nothing.

Miners are stopped on the highway by police and forced back home when they intended to support other pits, with the police being used as, in effect, a government militia: “What do you mean, we can’t drive where we want? This is ENGLAND.” The battle of Orgreave, where the miners are viciously beaten by police brought in from outside districts, is finely directed by Edward Hall. Readers may know that, 30 years on, the BBC has admitted its reporting of those events was not as accurate as it should have been.

Police were said to have taunted miners struggling with debt, laughing from their buses, saying all the overtime was paying off their mortgages. I myself know of a barrister in Newcastle, where I was a trainee solicitor at the time, who also boasted that HIS mortgage would be paid off by the lucrative Orgreave cases. He secretly thought the miners were mugs, but was pleased at the high profile, well-paid defence work they provided for him. Many miners gained criminal records for violent disorder, in what history has shown was largely a one-sided assault by the police themselves.

Many support groups around the country tried to keep supplies coming to the striking miners, involving miners’ wives and other women in their communities, who gained confidence and skills in fundraising, public speaking, and politics which changed them forever. Foreign trade unionists also gave support, but like the wives, these were outside the scope of the play. The play showed friendships broken, families in crisis, bravery and defeat. It ends with statistics showing the fantastic amounts of money spent by a government who stopped at nothing to crush the strike, whatever the human, social and economic cost. Take your anti-trade union friends; it’s an eye-opener, and I couldn’t fault it, even with no women in the cast!


Wonderland is at the Hampstead Theatre until 26th July

3 Responses to Review: Wonderland

  1. I went to see this on Saturday! Really liked it :) thanks for the review, Hope.

  2. Great news – Wonderland will be live streamed this Sunday, for free :)

    How to watch online

    Visit or from 7.25pm on 26 July. The show will be completely free to watch on all platforms including smartphones. Viewers can interact via Twitter for behind-the-scenes commentary using #WonderlandLiveStream. Can’t make 26 July? There will be an on demand version available for 72 hours straight after the streaming.

  3. Sorry not Sunday – Saturday!