Review: Boys from the Blackstuff, National Theatre

James Graham delivers a faithful adaptation of Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, playing briefly at the National Theatre, as it moves from Liverpool’s Royal Court to the West End

“I want to be seen
I’m a human being
I’m alive”

Who could have imagined that a story about the indignities imposed on working-class Liverpudlians in the early 1980s could still have had so much resonance today? Well, more of us than we might like to admit, as the cost-of-living crisis endures and the economy remains paralysed by governmental ineptitude. So that much abused phrase “timely revival” is actually quite apposite for this theatrical adaptation of Boys from the Blackstuff.

Adapted by James Graham from Alan Bleasdale’s 1980s TV show, the show was produced and commissioned by Liverpool’s Royal Court under Kevin Fearon and plays the National Theatre for a short run ahead of a transfer to the West End at the Garrick Theatre – an impressive and cheering logistical feat in and of itself. It helps of course that it is a stirring piece of theatre, traditionally-minded but probably necessarily so for its impact to truly land.

The play follows Chrissie, Loggo, George, Dixie and Yosser as they reel from the bleakness of life on the dole. Turfed out of their old job laying the blackstuff (aka tarmac), the managed decline of Liverpool’s core industries (austerity by any other name) means there’s hardly any employment out there which in turn traps them in the vicious cycle of looking for the kind of illicit black market work on the side which got them in trouble in the first place and which takes a tragic turn here.

Reflecting the anthology nature of the TV show, the stories of the five men are intimately interwoven at first, but then start to diverge as cruel realities start to bite. The dire financial straits for them and their families, the mental health challenges to their bruised masculinity, the undermining of a meaningful way of life for an entire community. It’s not particularly subtle but then it isn’t trying to be, it is rightly putting across a hard-hitting message without cushioning the blow.

Kate Wasserberg’s production thus has something of an uncomplicated directness to it, playing out in the industrial detail of Amy Jane Cook’s set. Barry Sloane is phenomenal as Yosser, barely keeping it together such is his desperation; Philip Whitchurch’s ailing George is deeply moving as he constantly tries to keep the camaraderie going; and Nathan McMullen also impresses as Chrissie, conflicted by a job offer he doesn’t want to accept even despite the anguish it causes his wife Angie, Lauren O’Neil scorching the stage with her fury. Powerful stuff indeed.

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