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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Boys From The Blackstuff
Olivier Theatre  Spring 2024;  Garrick Theatre Summer 2024

James Grahamís stage adaptation of Alan Bleasdale's October 1982 television series Boys From The Blackstuff, originally commissioned and produced by Liverpoolís Royal Court, opens with film footage of Thatcher and the 1981 riots projected onto the huge screen at the back of the stage on either side of which stand huge cranes evoking the dockyard landscape of the city.

Margaret Thatcherís neo-liberalism prompted riots across the country from April to July 1981. By January 1982 UK unemployment reached 3,000,000 for the first time since the 1930s and Liverpool was losing about 12,000 people a year as they left searching for work.

The play conjures up the desperation of the times through the experience of six workers unable to get permanent work. Taking a chance with an 'off the books' stint on a building site they hope that the 'sniffers' of the Department of Employment donít catch them.

Snowy (George Caple), referred to by other workers as Karl Marx, takes pride in plastering and speaks enthusiastically of the 1960s as a time of political success.

He carries a length of rope to hang out of the window in case he has to make a quick escape. The first moments of the play give us an idea of how that will work out.

His father George (Philip Whitchurch) has become the wise older unofficial community advisor regularly visited by others needing help. He recalls a time when Liverpool boomed with shipping.

All are facing some kind of home difficulties including Chrissie (Nathan McMullen), described by other workers as 'too nice'. We see something of the way anxieties about employment affect his relationship with his wife Angie (Lauren O'Neil).

The grim atmosphere is lightened by light banter and the increasingly desperate appearances of Yosser Hughes (Barry Sloane), which generate ambivalent audience laughter as he badgers anyone he sees working with the words 'Gizza job. I could do that. Go on, gizzit'.

The show gives us a believable glimpse of a community in trouble struggling to maintain hope. There is no time to empathise with any particular character though we come away with a vivid memory of Yosserís desperation, from his manic requests for any job he comes across to his explosive fight with brutal police officers who come to turf him out of his house.

Faithful to a television series that accurately took the pulse of a city at the sharp end of government cruelty, this compassionate entertaining play well deserves a tour that includes a short run at the National before its transfer to Londonís Garrick Theatre.

Keith McKenna

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Review of  Boys From The Blackstuff - National and Garrick Theatres 2024

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