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Boys From The Blackstuff at the National Theatre | Review

“Gizza job! Go on, gizzit!” barks Yosser Hughes (Barry Sloane) over and over again, with more repetition than Theresa May droning on about being ‘strong and stable’. Such was the man’s desperation that he resorted, on several occasions, to take someone else’s job by force, grabbing milk bottles one minute (this stage adaptation, unlike the 1982 television series (which was largely written prior to the 1979 election), is set in Thatcher’s Britain, when there were still milkmen aplenty) and a lollipop lady’s stop sign the next, declaring “I can do that!” It was mildly amusing to begin with, but rather quickly became tedious and repetitive.

Cast of Boys From The Blackstuff at National Theatre. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.
Cast of Boys From The Blackstuff at National Theatre. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

The play was commissioned and originally produced by Liverpool’s Royal Court, although it ultimately doesn’t give audiences here in the Big Smoke (or indeed anywhere else) anything more than an overview of Liverpool and some of its inhabitants that doesn’t really exist anymore: the last time I was up there, it had a thriving economy, a decent nightlife (at least on a Saturday night), and a pleasant and clean city centre. Watching this play, one would be forgiven for thinking they’re all still bitter about ‘milk snatcher’ Thatcher and benefit cuts a generation ago. Today’s Liverpool isn’t without problems, of course, and there’s a lot of people in the ‘gig economy’ and on low wages on zero-hours contracts, but surely a play could have been written about those sorts of issues, and more, instead of rehashing something that was of its time.

Oddly, despite the plight of the jobless characters being clearly set out at the start of the play, it is well into the second half before someone even suggests looking further afield for work if there really isn’t anything in the local vicinity. That said, it is not completely irredeemable – a late scene, set in a church funeral (to say whose funeral it was would be too much of a spoiler) suggests, very perceptively, that liturgy said when attending church isn’t that far removed from the list of formulaic questions unemployed people are asked when attending the job centre: in both cases, the ‘calls’ are the same every time, and so are the ‘responses’.

Some light humour, particularly in the second half, brings some much needed comic relief to an otherwise bleak and dispiriting narrative. Yosser’s moment in a confessional booth was a particular highlight. Still and moving images are projected but didn’t add much to the storytelling. Dramatic tension, for all the thuggery and workplace accidents (it turns out there is some work out there after all), shines best when Chrissie (Nathan McMullen) and his wife Angie (Lauren O’Neil) are in a prolonged argument, with intriguing insights into how much one’s integrity and principles could indeed be compromised out of economic necessity.

There’s sufficient exposition to allow anyone unfamiliar with the characters from the television series of the same name to take in proceedings with clarity. I couldn’t help thinking this could have been at least twenty minutes shorter, especially as the characters that made it through to the end of the play are more or less in the same bleak circumstances than they were at the beginning. A strong cast with no weak links to report, though the show is let down somewhat by various reiterations of the same point about it being grim up north.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

George Caple – Snowy / Kevin / Scotty
Dominic Carter – Molloy / Marley / Landlord / Catholic Priest / Policeman / Gas Man / Clerk / Paper Boy
Helen Carter – Miss Sutcliffe / Freda / Margaret
Aron Julius – Loggo
Elliott Kingsley – Understudy
Nathan McMullen – Chrissie
Lauren O’Neil – Angie / Jean / Lawton / Student / Lollipop Lady / Clerk
Victoria Oxley – Understudy
Jamie Peacock – Moss / Clerk / Redundant Worker / Protestant Reverend / Milkman
Liam Powell-Berry – Understudy
Hayley Sheen – Understudy
Barry Sloane – Yosser
Liam Tobin – Understudy
Philip Whitchurch – George
Mark Womack – Dixie

Alan Bleasdale – Writer
James Graham – Playwright
Kate Wasserberg – Director
Lauren Dickson – Associate Director
Amy Jane Cook – Set and Costume Designer
Ian Scott – Lighting Designer
Rachel Nanyonjo – Movement Director
Jocelyn Prah – Associate Movement Director
Dyfan Jones – Composer and Sound Designer
Jamie Jenkin – Audio Visual Designer
Rachel Bown-Williams of Rc-Annie Ltd – Fight Director

80s Liverpool. Life is tough as Chrissie, Loggo, George, Dixie and Yosser play the game. But there is no work and no money. What are they supposed to do?

Find jobs, avoid the ‘sniffers’, work harder, work longer, buy cheaper, spend less? All whilst having a laugh along the way.

Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff by James Graham
A Liverpool’s Royal Court production by arrangement with Bill Kenwright Limited
National Theatre until 8 June 2024
Garrick Theatre 13 June to 3 August 2024


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