Adam Penford: Wonderland wouldn’t work as a novel or on the screen, it can only work on the stage and that is what will make for a thrilling night in the theatre

Thursday 8th February 2018

There’s a tradition of new Artistic Directors opting for a Shakespeare as their first production but that didn’t feel the best way of conveying my artistic vision for the Playhouse. Wonderland is an ensemble play and captures the robust spirit of Nottingham. It is also theatrically ambitious, telling an epic story in an innovative way. Wonderland wouldn’t work as a novel or on the screen, it can only work on the stage and that is what will make for a thrilling night in the theatre.

It’s been a wonderful challenge to make a story set underground come to life on stage and was one of the reasons I was attracted to the play. The mining location is so evocative and demands all the departments (set, costume, props, lighting, sound, movement) think creatively and collaborate. A huge amount of the work is done by the actors too as they convey the heat and exhaustion of life at the coalface. The play features over thirty scenes so it’s a big task for director and designer.

Although the story of Welbeck Colliery shares many similarities with other pits during the strike, or indeed other industrial disputes, the history of the mines in Nottingham is unique and complex. The play premiered in London originally and I’ve been pushing for it to receive its regional premiere in Nottingham ever since. It’s really exciting to be bringing it to its spiritual home.

Beth Steel, the playwright, is from north Notts, not far from where my own parents originate so I recognise the people and places she’s captured on the page. This period of history defined these areas and continues to do so; it’s a story that needs to be heard but it also brings great responsibility. The strike is still really contentious, it divides opinions and communities. Beth’s dad was a miner at the time and she has done vast amounts of research so the play feels respectful and authentic.

We took the cast and production team to visit the National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield recently. It’s the mine Morgan (set and costume designer) and I visited early in our design process and it really helped define the set for the production. The tour involves many practical elements that feature in the play such as putting on the gear in the Lamp Room and descending in the cage, but you also learn about the history and the craft of mining. All the tour guides are ex-miners and very characterful, they tell lots of anecdotes and you get a real sense of the camaraderie between the men and the reality of everyday life.

Rehearsals on Wonderland are hard work for the actors as it’s a huge play and many of them are playing multiple roles, alongside learning the songs and the movement. Although they look shattered at the end of the day there’s definitely a sense of pride, humour and teamwork in the room that seems to be mirroring the working life of the miners themselves. It’s interesting how each actor has taken on a role within the group in exactly the same way Beth suggests the miners do in their working teams.

I hope people will come to see Wonderland because it’s great drama. The play is hilarious and heartbreaking. Everyone will enjoy it whether they know lots or very little about the miners’ strike. Beth’s exploration of a period in our history that hugely shaped our nation’s future, particularly in our area, is profound and thought provoking. But it’s the human story that I think people will remember after they’ve seen the production. The characters and their journeys are so well drawn by Beth and inhabited by the actors that they grip you as you watch.

Away from Wonderland, we’re continuing to plan our 2018 season and have made some exciting new casting announcements. Rebecca Trehearn is to be our Sweet Charity. I’m thrilled Rebecca has agreed to play the role as I’ve been a big fan for a long time. Rebecca is well known on the musical circuit and last year won an Olivier Award for her performance in Show Boat in the West End. She has the wit, charisma, vulnerability and feistiness to make a superb Charity, and a singing voice to match.

We also revealed that Martina Laird is joining the previously announced Karl Collins in Shebeen, our play set during the 1950s in St Anns. Martina is a leading theatre actress and well known for her performance in Casualty. Pearl and George are two fantastic roles, a married couple that runs an illegal Shebeen in the front room of their house, and Martina and Karl will ensure the party goes off with a bang.