Saturday 1 June 2024

Boys from the Blackstuff - Review

National Theatre, London


Written by Alan Bleasdale
Play written by James Graham
Directed by Kate Wasserberg

Barry Sloane

Recent weeks have seen the stage translations of two television classics from the late 20th century open in London. John Cleese’s adaptation of Fawlty Towers has been a delight - taking his claustrophobic Torquay hotel and literally transporting its set, characters and storylines across both miles and decades to create theatrical magic. James Graham’s attempt at transitioning Alan Bleasdale’s bleakly brilliant Boys from the Blackstuff however marks a departure from Graham’s typically trademark genius and proves a depressing disappointment.

In the 1980’s Bleasdale’s six teleplays, each exquisitely photographed and acted around Liverpool, spoke with wit, tenderness and tragedy as they told of the challenges faced by the city in those times. The desperation and desolation of a group of men who’d previously earned their living laying tarmac (the titular blackstuff) won the nation’s hearts. Back in the day when there were only (just) four UK TV channels, Boys from the Blackstuff, with the late Bernard Hill’s remarkable interpretation of the defiantly damaged Yosser Hughes made for sensational viewing.

Indeed, the 1980s were fertile years in which the performing arts captured Liverpool’s pain with Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers emerging to be a timeless gem, still packing out theatres to this day. With hindsight, James Graham should have left the era well alone. Bleasdale’s original, skilfully directed by Philip Saville, took an hour-long episode to graphically flesh out each of the series’ characters. Today’s iteration sees Graham snatch vignettes from each of those original storylines and attempt to mould them into a two-hour blob of drama. The result is shallow, crass and un-engaging, with the tragic pathos of Bleasdale’s original, sacrificed on an altar of pseudo-relevant scenery, projections and a distracting (and on this press-night, technically disastrous) soundscape. 

The play has moments of a fine portrayal of human suffering from Barry Sloane’s Yosser, but otherwise - and this is a disgrace for a show that stems from such an outstanding pedigree - the evening is a bore.

Music from the 1980s is piped into the auditorium before and after the show. The Special’s Ghost Town, playing before curtain-up, could have been foretelling the post-interval gaps that were to emerge in the audience. And indeed when the somewhat depleted throng did return to their seats after half-time, it was Paul Weller coming through the Olivier’s sound system with The Jam’s song That’s Entertainment. If only.

Runs at the National Theatre until 8th June
Then at the Garrick Theatre from 13th June - 3rd August
Photo credit: Andrew AB Photography

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