Play for study: Missing Dan Nolan

Mark Wheeler
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Each issue of D&T we bring you a teachers’ guide to a play for study with your students, written by a fellow teacher. This issue, Vickie Smith introduces Missing Dan Nolan, a set text for OCR at GCSE

 A 2016 production of the play, directed by Tim Ford
A 2016 production of the play, directed by Tim Ford


In the OCR GCSE specification, Missing Dan Nolan is one of the plays centres can choose to study for the written exam: Performance and Response. In this exam students must consider the Social, Historical, Cultural context of the play and how this impacts on the staging of the play from different theatre makers points of view.

Missing Dan Nolan by Mark Wheeler is based on the true story of a teenager named Dan Nolan, who went missing on 1 January 2002.


Dan Nolan was 14 when he went missing from Hamble, Hampshire on the evening of 1 January 2002. The play is a non-naturalistic docudrama and is written in a nonlinear format. Wheeler uses a variety of conventions to break the fourth wall throughout the play, including still images, slow motion, monologues and movement sequences.

Mark Wheeler wrote this play as he was shocked not only by the situation, but the lack of media coverage the story received. It is worth exploring ‘missing people’ with students and how much coverage there is now compared to in 2002. At the time, Wheeler saw posters about a missing individual but due to the lack of coverage in the media he assumed that the boy had been found. When he found out that Dan was still missing and saw a stall trying to raise awareness, he offered to write a Docudrama that would take the format of a reconstruction of Dan Nolan going missing. He subsequently interviewed various people and used verbatim techniques to develop a reconstruction of the events leading to the disappearance of Dan. The verbatim text is made up from interviews with Dan's parents, sister, his friends and the policeman linked to the investigation. As this is a true story using verbatim theatre it is essential that the story is told in its true form and therefore edits and cuts should not be made. This should be made explicit to the students and can be explored in lessons as to how this impacts the truth of the story and the characters.

Social, cultural, historical setting

The play has a specific time period as a Docudrama and it is therefore important that this is explored and honoured in the direction, design and performance of the play. It is set 2001/2002 around New Year in Hamble, Hampshire. A good idea is to set the students a project in looking into the SCH setting of the play and presenting their findings on areas such as fashion and music, to allow them to fully appreciate what things were look during this time period. The basics include:

  • Social – within the community of Hamble, fishing is a big part of society and something that people do to socialise.
  • Cultural – Dan Nolan was heavily into American punk rock and was a fan of the band Blink 182.
  • Historical – in 2002 mobile phones were not as common as they are now. Dan had a mobile phone but it was his responsibility to purchase credit. On the evening he went missing he had no credit on his mobile telephone.


Mark Wheeler is quite specific that the characters in the play are real people and therefore they should not be overplayed. It is important to explore the characters and do as much research as possible behind the real people. A good way to do this is to explore the ‘real’ news stories that surrounded Dan Nolan's disappearance. The students can then create a series of roles on the wall to capture what they have learnt, and use this information in staging a series of the scenes.


The play is set in a variety of locations and breaks the fourth wall. When considering staging it is important to consider these two things. Minimalistic setting lends itself to this play, with props and lighting being used to add setting to the locations. Within the OCR exam, students will have to justify the set design that they choose and how it lends itself to the play. It is therefore important to explore how different types of staging and set could lend itself to the direction of the play. This can be done with a list of pros and cons of different stage styles.

In the opening of the play there are specific stage directions written by Mark Wheeler. It is essential that these stage directions are explored with the students and should be very physical and fast-paced, this sets the style of the play. I would suggest exploring this at the beginning of studying the play, this will give students an understanding of the physicality of the play and opens discussions about suitable theatre practitioners such as Kneehigh, Frantic Assembly or Brecht.

Two other important elements to discuss in the staging of this play are costume and music. Mark Wheeler suggests using the song ‘NAME’ in the opening, although he is open for theatre makers to explore different music that could enhance the emotions of the music. It is however important to discuss with students the SCH setting of the play and how this impacts both the costume and music used. When exploring the play I have found that students find it informative to create mood boards using their research to help with decisions that they would make.

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