“It’s Stockport, it’s England”
He’s here, he’s there, Simon Stephens is everywhere. Between a prolific rate of new writing, adaptations of other texts and revivals of his older work, Stephens has been a remarkably constant presence on our stages for the past year or so and now it is the turn of the National Theatre to get in on the act as Marianne Elliott revives his 2002 play Port. Set in his native Stockport, it visits Racheal at roughly two-yearly intervals from the ages of 11 through to 24, as she grows up in a rough world.
A victim of domestic violence, her mother leaves the family; a juvenile delinquent with a taste for robbing, her younger brother just can’t keep out of trouble; disillusioned with his lot, her father is still present but has checked out emotionally; against all of this Racheal plots to escape the narrow world of Stockport through hard work, through marriage, through whatever it takes but of course, life is never that easy as cold reality comes a-knocking at the door every time.
The role of Racheal is a huge ask for an actress, on stage throughout the entire play and ageing 13 years in the process, but fortunately the winner of the 2012 fosterIAN for Best Actress in a Play – Kate O’Flynn – was available and proves more than up to the part. Her natural ebullience carries her through the younger scenes well but there’s a gravitas, a grittiness which underscores her every action so that when her plans invariably go askew, the pragmatic clicks in automatically and the way O’Flynn conveys this enforced spiritedness is astounding and highly affecting.
Mike Noble as her brother Billy is also persuasively powerful as a portrait of disaffected youth in whom the damage has struck deeper than his older sibling, unable to escape the world in which he has found himself. There’s some clever doubling in the supporting roles too, which further pushes the feeling of insularity in this world. Liz White (sadly under-used for my liking) is desperately affecting as the struggling mother, so it is a delicately touching moment when she reappears as the ailing grandmother. And likewise, Jack Deam makes a chillingly authentic domineering father so that when his second role turns out to be of a less-than-ideal husband for Rachael, the cycle of abuse seems doomed to repeat itself.
For me though, the episodic nature of the play resulted in an unevenness across the whole play even through the killer soundtrack of Mancunian tunes. Some of the scenes are much more affecting than others (one wonders if some sharpening may still occur before opening night as it ran a full 20 minutes over the advertised running time) and there wasn’t always quite the coherence between them, in the sense of building up into a dramatic whole that is bigger than its constituent parts. Lizzie Clachan’s design doesn’t always help here either, the intimacy of so much of what is happening is lost in the cavernous open space of the Lyttelton and no amount of stage trickery, however impressive, can mask that.
That said, Stephens’ gift for imbuing his characters with a realistically spare vocabulary that somehow delivers volumes is surely amongst the best in the country. And in the most acutely observed moments – the hospital waiting room in which the 13 year old Racheal awaits news of her sick grandfather and the simply gorgeous penultimate scene in a pub garden full of reminiscences and regrets aged 24 – Port brims with hard-earned emotional truthfulness.