REVIEW: Boys From The Blackstuff, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews James Graham’s Boys From the Blackstuff now playing at the National Theatre.

Boys From The Blackstuff
Barry Sloane as Yosser. Photo: Alastair Muir

Boys from the Blackstuff.
National Theatre
29 May 2024
5 Stars
Book Tickets

It’s always a thrill when regional theatre comes to London and kicks the door in, and the National Theatre is becoming a conduit for this. Following excellent productions with the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, and the mighty Sheffield Theatres with Standing At the Sky’s Edge, here comes Alan Bleasdale’s classic work, first staged at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre under Kevin Fearon, here at the National for a short time before it moves into the Garrick Theatre for a West End run. Working with Bleasdale, James Graham has shaped the 1982 series into a well-structured, just over two-hour play, and while this means we lose some character development, its emotional punch is still as hard. A group of men, all former workers of the “Blackstuff”, (tarmac), face a life on the dole and have to work illegally to make ends meet, chased by the “sniffers” from the Department of Employment, looking to crack down on benefit fraud. The unemployment rate was over three million at the time, as Thatcher’s policies closed down industry.

Boys From The Blackstuff
The company. Photo: Alastair Muir

For those who remember the series, it can be summed up in two words, “Gizza job”, the desperate growl of Yosser Hughes, trying to hold everything together as everything begins to be taken away from him. Given extra poignancy by the recent death of Bernard Hill, who memorably brought the character to life, Barry Sloane captures Yosser perfectly, making the part his own. Violent, threatening, desperate and yet still loveable, he strides the stage, placing everyone around him on the edge of their nerves. It’s horribly pertinent that his cry can still be heard 42 years after transmission of the series. Chrissie, superbly portrayed by Nathan McMullen, is our Everyman through this industrial wasteland, perfectly captured in Amy Jane Cook’s set and costumes, and there is a beautiful performance from Philip Whitchurch as George, the community elder who runs an unofficial advice bureau from his front room, heartbreakingly remembering the docks when they thrived. It is a male heavy cast, but Lauren O’Neil as Chrissie’s hungry, suffering wife Angie brings the despair and love home in equal measure. The humour is dark, yet hits the bone perfectly, and I was delighted to hear that the confessional “Dan” joke still works perfectly!

Boys From The Blackstuff
Barry Sloane and Dominic Carter. Photo: Alastair Muir

The play will introduce Bleasdale’s classic to a new generation, together with the repeats on BBC4. There is, perhaps, a lot of exposition in Act One, and Graham finds several endings to the play before it settles perfectly, but Kate Wasserberg’s astute direction keeps the pace lively, and the community singing is reminiscent of Liverpool film maker Terence Davis, especially Distant Voices Still Lives, and it makes Liverpool an extra character. Staged during an election campaign, these working-class voices need to be heard.

Until 8 June 2024

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