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FringeReview UK 2024

Boys From the Blackstuff

National Theatre, London in association with Liverpool’s Royal Court

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

Amy Jane Cook’s single set of cloud-flown derricks looms over Boys From the Blackstuff, in James Graham’s two-and-half hour condensation of Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 TV series.

Arriving at the National Theatre till June 8th directed by Kate Wasserberg in association with Liverpool’s Royal Court, it’s a groundbreaking venture. The production then transfers to the Garrick.

More a prophesy than history in this stunning production.


Written by Alan Bleasdale, Adapted by James Graham, Directed by Kate Wasserberg, Associate Director Lauren Dickson,

Set and Costume Designer Amy Jane Cook, Lighting Design Ian Scott, Movement Director Rachael Nanyonjo, Associate Movement Director Jocelyn Prah, Composer and Sound Designer Dyfan Jones, Audio Visual Designer Jamie Jenkin, Fight Director Rachel Bown-Williams for RC-Annie Ltd.

Till June 8th



Amy Jane Cook’s single set of cloud-flown derricks looms over

Boys From the Blackstuff, in James Graham’s two-and-half hour condensation of Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 TV series.

Arriving at the National Theatre till June 8th directed by Kate Wasserberg in association with Liverpool’s Royal Court, it’s a groundbreaking venture. The production then transfers to the Garrick.

Bleasdale’s still involved but could hardly have predicted a miracle of theatrical dovetailing, producing – even for the prolific Graham – one of his finest theatrical coups towards the end.

Like the original series this adaptation seems prescient too, in this faithful recreation of stark realism which includes the set being plainer than many recent Olivier shows, inevitably not using the revolve (like Small Island, video – here Jamie Jenkin’s – is a storyteller from Toxteth to Thatcher). Certainly as austerity-as-choice beds in with whichever party wins the election, we don’t even have George’s hope in a better-governed world.

Despite the governing, or oppressing world using language to crush, what emerges is two levels of resistance – as the former tarmac-layers, who lost their jobs through a dodgy side-deal gone wrong, queue for the dole. Skirling wit and fire-tongued rhodomontade; and with George, his son Snowy, ultimately Chrissie, articulating class-struggle and taking life into their own hands.

This is obscured brilliantly by making the most vocal the most confused character. Yosser, as portrayed by Barry Sloane, emerges as a howling engine of self-destruction, damaging those around him to act against their own self-interest by sheer willpower. But Yosser flails for identity and agency in a world where his wife’s left him and his perpetually invisible children seem his only distraction: “Maurice, get out of that cement mixer!”

Yosser, a young Lear, but ever slightly knows himself, repeatedly asserting “I can do that” from bricklaying to lollipop-ferrying, gas-men snoopers, milkmen or groundsmen. His one talent, tarmac-laying, isn’t needed. The Shakespearean energies invoked in some comparisons are real.

But Yosser’s children can neither damn or redeem him. Sloane fines down Yosser to a towering whisper, a look, or a sudden, friend-smashing punch. There’s a deft (blink-and-miss) moment illustrating how a year ago Yosser badgered his friends into a disastrous move.

If Sloane’s Yosser is the catalyst, acting on but never changing, never learning, Christie (Nathan McMullen) is the one acted on. In McMullen’s finely understated performance Chrissie’s arc of repeatedly being “too nice” stymies him, exasperates even his wife Angie (Lauren O’Neill in several powerful performances, notably as robotic DHSS Jean, and sharp-tongued Student who calls Yosser “scared”).

But it’s Chrissie’s epiphanic moment at George’s funeral which not only proves the emotional climax, but theatrically conflates the two poles of authority into a meaningless ritual. The service of call-and-response Catholic liturgy maps onto DHSS interrogations we’ve already seen; as at the start the five central characters find sideswiping ad-libs to break out of the hierarchy, avoid the ‘sniffers’ trying to prove they’re moonlighting to work whilst claiming the dole.

Just like the confessional (Yosser tries both churches to comedic effect) the booths the five enter are controlled by clerks, ranged like puppeteers from above. They’re dedicated to smell out secular sin. Finally the Department of (Un)Employment looms as the new cathedral under construction: not only monitoring work, but providing it.

If the oldest character is subsumed into the church it’s Chrissie who provides the secular eulogy for George (Philip Whitchurch). He’s the most sympathetic and balanced character, emerging as an oracle to counter authority with socialism and a peaen to solidarity: the past and a possible future. Whitchurch anchors each scene he’s in, semaphores George as a frail titan.

Put-upon foreman Dixie (Mark Womack) takes all the blame going, cowed by his unenviable role. But he breaks out of this as Womack movingly counsels Dixie’s son Kevin (George Caple, also Snowy the tragic socialist son of George, and security-guard Scotty) to finally escape with his guitar. Neatly, Kevin gets a hitch-sign to Leeds, where a year ago the Student who told him to get a life was headed.

He’s joined in that final hike by Loggo (Aron Julius) bound – with spectacular optimism – for the Shetlands. Julius – whose speeches soar with the show’s greatest lyricism and flight –  might have less to do, but Graham brings in early speeches about his slave-trafficked great-grand-parents alongside George’s historical counterpoint. Famously, there’s a proud tradition of anti-slavery in Liverpool, culminating in the refusal to handle cotton from the American South in 1862, despite the population starving for their actions.

O’Neill and Helen Carter shine with an energy to stamp a few women characters to push through the male narrative. Carter’s DHSS Miss Sutcliffe proves a wry foil to hapless jobsworth Moss. She’s also Dixie’s wife Margaret who with O’Neill’s slowly furious Angie, provides the only women’s conversation as they hide from sniffers; and George’s nearly mute wife Freda.

Jamie Peacock was an FOH in Liverpool’s production. Now he shines as egregious but confused DHSS zealot Moss, and as a Protestant Reverend is so unctuous Yosser nearly kills him. Indeed in every other role but Moss (like Milkman) he takes the hits meant for Moss; it seems a running casting-joke.

Dominic Carter’s even more condemned. His Molloy is worst when wheedling after a death for which he was responsible, and though Yosser’s punches are overly liberal, here they fork lightning. As Dan the Catholic Priest he’s the butt of Yosser’s best quip. “I’m desperate, Dan.” Carter’s redeemed as it were as Marley, the thief.

There’s a gallimaufry of ensemble roles: Elliott Kingsley, Victoria Oxley, Liam Powell-Berry, Hayley Sheen, Liam Tobin. Rachael Nanyonjo’s movement makes a ballet of ensemble moments, which provides memorable snatches of a cappella: a necessary unity in a grey-sprawled world. Dyfan Jones’s sound and music is ominous; Ian Scott’s lighting is a bleak slap in the wind.

Graham’s consciously stretched even further from his old political hinterland than he did in Dear England. This consummate adaptation enriches his work as it does homage to Bleasdale’s vision.

Liverpool’s Royal Court under Kevin Fearon, as the work’s original producers and commissioners, have (with the NT) caused something huge to transfer here: the city’s character overarches this production with scudding images and a grey dwarfing presence. Over 40 years on, nothing in it dates. It’s more prophesy than history in this stunning production.