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Review: Boys From the Blackstuff at Liverpool's Royal Court *****

In the autumn of 1982, the UK’s official unemployment figure stood at almost three million.

Liverpool accounted for more than 96,000 of that – while there were fewer than 2,000 vacancies advertised in the city’s job centres.

So it’s perhaps no wonder a new TV series, written by Alan Bleasdale and broadcast as the nights got colder and longer, made such an impact.

An impact that has continued to be felt down the decades, and which still resonates with many in today’s world of zero hours working and community foodbanks.

It’s a point that doesn’t need spelling out, and happily this powerful new stage version of Boys From the Blackstuff, crafted with passion and panache - and not a little pathos - by playwright James Graham, steers well clear of temptation.

Instead, it lets Bleasdale’s work speak for itself in a production of real quality, and which underlines the ability of live theatre to both provoke and to move.

Kudos must also go to both the Court’s Kevin Fearon, who realised the potential for bringing Blackstuff to the stage and pursued his dream with dogged determination, and to director Kate Wasserberg whose vision turned that dream into reality.

It was Wasserberg who brought together Bleasdale, long convinced his seminal small screen drama was unstageable, and Graham (who likened the introduction, with a writer’s colourful turn of phrase, as ‘like trying to two pandas to mate in the zoo’).

It turned out that despite being divided by generation and geography, the pair were a storytelling love match; the latter nurturing the former’s already richly wrought characters while broadening the landscape they inhabit to present a tangible sense of time (12 months after Toxteth went up in flames) and place – a once-prosperous port city reduced to penury partly due to, as Mark Womack’s ‘Dixie’ Dean suggests, it “facing the wrong way”.

A slideshow of images from Boys From the Blackstuff. Photos by Jason Roberts

There’s nary a false note in the storytelling, nor a weak link in the 10-strong cast who fill not only the shoes of Bleasdale’s ‘famous five’ – proud working men crushed by circumstances outside their control - but also the swirling mass of characters around them, from long-suffering wives and families to priests and publicans (those two ‘pillars’ of the community) to the ‘sniffers’ from the Department of Employment eager to catch moonlighters augmenting their giros with a few cash-in-hand pounds on the side.

The spectre of the original cast is successfully banished early on, so that within a few minutes of their introduction - laconic in a dole queue – they ARE Chrissie, Dixie, George, Yosser and the philosophising Loggo (Aron Julius who first appeared on the Royal Court stage as a pupil in Our Day Out).

Barry Sloane has perhaps the toughest challenge to exorcise the image of Bernard Hill. But he proves a charismatic and a formidable presence – both physically and emotionally - as the Catherine Wheel that is Yosser, delivering an exceptional portrayal of a sensitive, vulnerable man who has found himself on the edge and is screaming into the void for help.

Meanwhile there’s something very satisfying about watching Drew Schofield, 40 years ago Bleasdale’s imaginative teenager Scully, now portraying his dignified but bewildered socialist statesman, George Malone.

The first half is based predominately on the opening two episodes of the original series, with a day’s cash-in-hand work on a building site ending in tragedy and Dixie facing a dockside dilemma, and adds a flashback to Bleasdale’s 1980 Play for Today which first introduced the ‘boys’ on an official ‘blackstuff’ gig in Middlesbrough.

Above: Yosser (Barry Sloane), Dixie (Mark Womack), Chrissie (Nathan McMullen), Loggo (Aron Julius) and George (Andrew Schofield). Top: Sloane as Yosser Hughes. Photos by Jason Roberts.

After the interval, Graham delivers some of Blackstuff’s most memorable moments; Angie’s tearful, violent appeal for the beaten down Chrissie to fight back, the football pitch linesman, and Yosser’s forlorn cathedral confessional – ‘I’m desperate...Dan’ – its gallows humour drawing applause from the audience.

Elsewhere, he cleverly intertwines the repetitive call-and-response of a Catholic requiem mass and the monotonous formulaic question/answer of the DSS drones and sets it in stark relief with an impromptu, heartfelt eulogy by Nathan McMullen’s Chrissie.

Without film’s ability to switch between multiple locations with the press of the edit button, Wasserberg and movement director Rachael Nanyonjo spin a succession of mini scenes fluidly in and out on Amy Jane Cook’s ambitious dockland set which is dominated by nodding cranes, with moveable gantries and a simple selection of props hinting of shifts in location.


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