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Boys return to the Blackstuff at Liverpool's Royal Court

Few would argue that Boys from the Blackstuff – given its world premiere at Liverpool’s Royal Court last autumn – turned out to be one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of the year.

Certainly not the 36,288 (to be precise) people who helped make its six-week run a sellout success.

So perhaps it’s no surprise the show, based on Alan Bleasdale’s game-changing early 1980s TV drama and adapted by prolific, award-winning playwright James Graham (think Quiz, Ink, This House, Best of Enemies and, most recently, Dear England), is returning for a second run.

Not only that, but then it’s off to blaze a trail through the National Theatre and on to the West End.

Which means eight of the original cast – and two ‘newbies’ – are currently back in the Royal Court’s rehearsal room with director Kate Wasserberg, fuelled by custard creams and bourbons, to revisit and, it turns out, ever so slightly rework (Graham has written a handful of new scenes) the play before it opens next Friday.

“It’s been wonderful getting back in the room,” enthuses Barry Sloane, returning as Yosser Hughes. “We had such an incredible energy the last time, which is part and parcel of what has made this as special as it is.

“It fills my heart with joy that we have a fully Scouse cast.

“I think there’s a shared energy that’s within all of us, that we understand this piece. It’s a joyous experience, and Jamie and Phil have been unbelievable, so quickly to fit in. It’s been great – it’s just a bunch of friends getting to make something brilliant.”

The Jamie in question is Jamie Peacock who has joined as Moss, the role actor Oliver Mawdsley played in the inaugural run. Philip Whitchurch meanwhile replaces Drew Schofield as George.

Peacock, beaming, agrees: “Its story is so rooted in Liverpool’s culture. I wasn’t born then but from watching it, it’s given me a clearer picture of what my identity is. My mum and dad lived through that time, so what they went through, and what my place is in this world now.

“It’s just a pleasure to be working alongside an absolute powerhouse of a team. The actors, and director, and crew, everyone is just so in on it together. And it’s been fun as well.

“It's such an important message and it’s very serious, the actual material, but the fun we’ve have in the room makes it enjoyable doesn’t it?”

Above: Yosser, Dixie, Chrissie, Loggo and George - Boys from the Blackstuff. Photo by Jason Roberts. Top: Barry Sloane and Jamie Peacock in the Royal Court rehearsal room.

“That’s Alan’s writing,” suggests Sloane. “The humour is so brilliant in it. He’s the master of making you laugh while falling to your death.

“This play is really a wave of emotion – we did our first run through the other Friday, and you kind of go into it saying ‘I’ll just mark this’…but then you just get swept up in it. The writing is so good that you’re in the middle of a full tilt battle. And it was so powerful.”

Sloane was first alerted to the Royal Court’s plan to stage Boys from the Blackstuff while he was reprising his role as hardman Troy Whitworth alongside Mark Rylance in another powerful story, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, in the West End two years ago.

The Garston-born actor had originated the role of Whitworth in the celebrated stage play when it was premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2009, later transferring with it to the West End and on to Broadway.

He says: “An actor called Gerard Horan – a wonderful fella – was reading The Stage I think, and he came into my dressing room and said ‘they’re doing Boys from the Blackstuff, you HAVE to be seen as Yosser – they’d be crazy not to see you for this’. To which I thought, that’s a bit mad! What does he think of me?!”

Sloane asked his agent to put him forward for the role the same day, and he ended up in an audition room with Alan Bleasdale and James Graham among others.

“I was excited,” he smiles. “I said to Alan at the end of it, ‘I’m just pleased to have had 20 minutes with Yosser to be honest’. That’s how I felt.”

But he also feared he may have blown it after ‘thrashing’ at a pile of chairs while acting out a scene: “(Producer) Kevin Fearon got up because the chairs were going to fall on me and I was ‘you leave those f***ing chairs alone lad!’

“I was still in character, and I didn’t realise at the time that he ran the theatre! I thought, this could be game over, right there. But obviously it worked.”

It certainly did. Sloane got the part and made it his own – no mean feat given the fact Bernard Hill’s screen performance is seared in so many people’s memories.

Above: Barry Sloane as Yosser and Dominic Carter as a Catholic priest in one of the most famous scenes from Boys from the Blackstuff. Photo by Jason Roberts.

The 43-year-old also gets to deliver arguably the two most famous lines in the whole of Bleasdale’s drama – ‘gizza job’ and ‘I’m desperate Dan’. How do you deal with what must be a palpable frisson and air of expectation in the room?

He considers: “I was reticent when I started out, early in my career, to involve the audience. I’d be, ‘I must create the wall!’ But working with Mark Rylance, I’d watch him make eye contact, and if there was a big gag coming, he’d allow the audience to feel what was coming – and I was guilty of that a few nights.

“I’d hold just long enough for people to be on the edge of it, and then whack it in. When an audience loves your character, it’s great fun.”

Yosser is a character who is embedded in our cultural consciousness and, Sloane, says “a hero to so many people.”

But if Yosser is a (tragically) heroic figure, Moss is in many ways the opposite.

Dubbed a ‘sniffer’, he’s tasked by the Department of Employment to sniff out those on the dole who are moonlighting for some cash-in-hand on the side.

“I’ve always wanted to play a baddie in a play!” LIPA graduate Peacock admits. “He’s the grass, and that’s a big thing in Liverpool. Alan wanted him to be from L8 and that’s such an integral part of his character. It’s his job to snitch on his family and friends.”

It would be easy to make Moss a cardboard cut-out villain, but Peacock is keen to bring out the conflict within the character, pointing out: “He’s doing it from a place of necessity. He’s in a fortunate position that he’s got a job, but it’s a moral question. Does he want it? Now he’s in it, he has to do it.

“In act two, Moss becomes nastier. If he could he’d move away from Liverpool – to London, of if not across the water.”

Above: Jamie Peacock in Masquerade at the Royal Court Studio in 2019.

This is Peacock’s main house debut at the Roe Street theatre, but not his first time in front of a Royal Court audience. He made his professional stage debut five years ago downstairs in the Studio, playing Mike in Laura Lees’ gay coming-of-age story Masquerade, which was later revived at the Epstein Theatre.

He also appeared in last year’s Yorkshire Ripper drama The Incident Room and then in Stocking Fillers, both in the Royal Court Studio again.

The theatre has also been his regular place of employment over the last few years, and he ended up seeing Blackstuff multiple times when he worked front of house during last autumn’s run.

Little can he have imagined then he would be joining the show – and in fact, for a while he was mistakenly convinced he had been hired as an understudy, going round telling all his workmates, before he was taken aside and informed he really WAS playing Moss.

“It was like receiving the good news all over again,” he laughs. “I had to go round telling everyone ‘I’m actually in it!’”

Peacock left LIPA in 2022, having studied through the pandemic. The residual fallout from Covid meant that there was no traditional handshake from Paul McCartney at his graduation ceremony, although, the 25-year-old says: “He complimented my tie pin, said I looked very dapper!”

But his first taste of acting came when he got the role of Bugsy Malone at junior school. The performing bug immediately bit and has never let go.

Above: Jamie Peacock in Stocking Fillers. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

“I did Bugsy Malone at school as well!” Sloane says, breaking into a chorus of Down and Out with Peacock joining in before Sloane adds: “I do a great Tallulah. You’ve just got to give me a chance!”

Sloane himself started out playing in a band as a teenager.

He was 19 when he won the role of Ivan Vaughn in American TV film In His Life, about John Lennon’s teenage years. The cast also included Gill Kearney as Cynthia Powell, Mark Rice-Oxley as George Harrison, Paul Usher as Lennon’s dad Freddie and Scot Williams – still a good mate of Sloane’s – as Pete Best.

Williams is involved, in a directorial capacity, in a new play Two of Us which Sloane has co-written, and which imagines the unexpected meeting between Lennon and McCartney after the latter turned up on the doorstep of the Dakota building in 1976.

But Jerusalem, Two of Us, an early stint in Blood Brothers on tour (he played Sammy) and Blackstuff aside, he remains best known for a slew of well-received screen roles on both sides of the Atlantic - he’s just appeared in ITV’s Passenger.

In fact, he juggled Blackstuff with some filming commitments last autumn, which meant he had to don fake facial hair – what director Kate Wasserberg dubbed ‘the moustache of power’.

This time around, the face fuzz is all his.

“The wife is thrilled at the moment!” he laughs. “I had to use a little bit of a stick on (last time) and I wasn’t enjoying it so much. So I’ve grown me own muzzy this time.

“I met one of me mates from school the other day and he was like ‘f***ing hell, you look like your dad from 1993!’”

While the moustache might say ’93, and Blackstuff is set in the early 80s, the actor explains he looks further back still to find some of Yosser’s inner essence.

“I do a musical play list, and it’s all from his heyday,” he reveals. “Like, Summer of Love was when he was in his prime, you know what I mean? So I’m listening to lots of late 60s stuff at the moment.”

Above: Barry Sloane as Yosser Hughes. Photo by Jason Roberts.

Before there’s any kind of summer of love, there’s spring back on stage at the Royal Court, and from there the transfer to the National’s huge Olivier stage, and on to the Garrick.

Peacock says he can’t wait to perform for family – and also for friends and work colleagues at the Royal Court itself, even if the idea of going on to the National still “seems surreal”.

“I’m lost for words when I talk about it still really, it hasn’t hit me and it won’t until we’re in that space and we’re on that stage and it’s bigger, and I see all the seats. And then I’ll be like – oh f**k! This is it. This is why we do it.

“And I love it. There’s no other feeling like it. Just that joy and passion, and it’s the want to do it.”

He adds: “Barry mentioned about when we go to the West End, making it our fortress.”

“It should feel like a corner of Liverpool,” insists Sloane. “It should feel like Liverpool 8 in the West End, and you should feel the tension, you should feel like you’re stepping into the early 80s era.

“It’s our house you’re coming into, unapologetically, we won’t be taking the edge off the accent, we won’t be slowing the thing down. You’ll stay with it, and you’ll get hit by it and feel the power of it.

"And I’m excited to do that.”

Boys From the Blackstuff is at Liverpool’s Royal Court from April 19 to May 11. Tickets HERE

It transfers to the National Theatre from May 22 to June 8, and to the Garrick from June 13 to August 3.


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