Monday, December 4

Boys From The Blackstuff – Liverpool’s Royal Court

A standing ovation was a given, and Alan Bleasedale here to enjoy it, but I’ve never seen individual scenes applauded before. It’s an astounding piece about the bitter struggle between employers, employees (Dole Office sniffers) and unemployed; men, once so proud of their skills, engulfed by the darkness of poverty and despair. A grand scale tragi-comedy, filled with microcosms: the second half seems like a series of vignettes, monologues and dialogues: fraught scenes between husband and wife, father and son, etc. On the one hand: farce, Freda (Helen Carter) in her hallway, caught between Malloy (Dominic Carter) at the back door, Angie at the front, the phone constantly ringing. Then Yosser, seeking to discover the meaning of life from the churches at each end of hope Street.

Th set is breath taking. A barren dockyard, despite intricate metal structures in front of two enormous jousting cranes and a backdrop with derelict derricks looming like dinosaurs, massive buildings, at an angle; a constantly shifting world where everything and everybody is in danger of collapse. Platforms are wheeled on and off (sofa and table to indicate a living room) and the men assemble in a shaky, prison-like gantry, to face their remorseless inquisitors. Everything is enhanced by costume, dowdy or garish, and clever use of lighting: in Yosser’s arrest, the violence is emphasised by balletic Wild Bunch slow motion. The use of music too, like Sean O’Casey, brings a world of poignance: nursery rhymes; shanties and folk songs.

Men singing for their supper, for jobs to put food on the table. The cast was first class; though not enough space to give every credit. Saintly George is the man in the middle to whom they all turn – hard to imagine this play without the presence of the remarkable Andrew Schofield. Nathan McMullen is admirable as his guilt-riddled nephew Chrissie, trying follow his example, stubbornly sticking to his principles. Mark Womack gives a telling portrayal as Dixie, also principled but uptight and increasingly disillusioned, underlined by his relationship with son Kevin, George Caple, who adroitly switches to playing George’s idealistic son Snowy, killed in a tragic accident. Kevin and Loggo (Aron Julius) make their escape, the younger man hoping for a better life; the latter, frustrated and furious, off to the Shetlands. Meanwhile, Oliver Mawdlsey, convincingly constantly wrong-footed, finds himself stuck on both sides of the fence.

Credit: Jason Roberts

Unfortunately, dialogue at times was inaudible, though the accents were authentic, and the acerbic and witty observations crystal clear. Also confusing, because most actors played more than one part, despite costume being used almost as uniform; impossible to tell who was the Dole Office lady raising laughs through her whiny, nasal pronunciation. Both women were however outstanding in every role, Lauren O’Neill, in particular as anguished Angie, and Helen Carter as Miss Sutcliffe who appears totally indifferent even to heart breaking Dole Office interviews, though an ingenious twist rivals the one with Yosser and his children.

He’s the one whom any mention of The Boys from the Blackstuff first springs to mind, with ‘Gizza job’ as iconic as ‘A handbag’, if stamped with a different class. But what actor in his right mind persists ‘I can do that.’? Barry Sloane steps up, searingly, as the man inevitably disintegrating, and almost manages to make you forget Bernard Hill. It’s all the more unsettling because of the Middlesborough flashback when their world is turned upside down, and the seeds of destruction are sown.

I wanted to use ‘desperately’ for the men’s lives and longings, but it’s reserved to describe fans and newcomers alike wanting to book tickets for James Graham’s powerful adaptation of the famous TV series (with added innovations….). 40 years on, does it stand the test of time? Indeed, still a classic.

Playing until 28thOctober,

Reviewer: Carole Baldock

Reviewed: 21st September 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.