There was a palpable air of expectation in Liverpool’s Royal Court – the remarkable “dinner theatre” that specialises in popular live drama – ahead of this premiere of James Graham’s adaptation of Alan Bleasdale’s famous TV series Boys From the Blackstuff. Indeed, even the PA announcer begged us to switch off mobile phones because: “We’ve waited 40 years for this show. It would be a shame to spoil it.”
Despite its origins in a BBC Play for Today that was made in 1978 (and broadcast in 1980), Bleasdale’s series about out-of-work Liverpudlian tradesmen came to be seen as a major statement on the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government. By the time the series was screened in 1982, unemployment in the UK had passed three million.
There is no question of director Kate Wasserberg’s staging (produced by Liverpool’s Royal Court in association with Stockroom Productions Ltd) simply relying on Blackstuff’s near-legendary status on Merseyside. Graham has crafted aspects of Bleasdale’s work into a brilliantly honed two-and-a-half hours of theatre.
Barry Sloane has been given the extraordinarily difficult task of playing the role of the deeply troubled Yosser Hughes. The actor and his director appear to have decided that Bernard Hill so defined the character in the television series that one cannot stray far from that iconic portrayal.
It’s a decision that pays dividends. With every desperate act of violence, every instruction given to his absent, young children, Sloane’s Yosser carries the same resounding pathos that Hill’s did 41 years ago, and this performance is typical of the excellent acting across the piece. From Andrew Schofield’s big-hearted old socialist George Malone to Lauren O’Neil in the role of long-suffering labourer’s wife Angie Todd, there simply is no weak link in this universally tremendous cast.
The script captures the bleak humour of Bleasdale’s series (especially in the dark farce of Angie talking to friends and neighbours through the letterbox for fear of being spotted by the “sniffers” from the Social Security fraud department). Designer Amy Jane Cook honours the writing with a visually impressive, improbably versatile dockyard set.
Meanwhile the music, live song, choreography and projected imagery help to generate the necessary atmosphere of tension, fear and instinctive human solidarity.
By the end, the opening night Liverpool audience was on its feet. Merseyside has a special place in its heart for Bleasdale’s drama, of course, but this is such an accomplished Blackstuff that it surely deserves a UK tour.
Until Oct 28. Tickets: 0151 709 4321; liverpoolsroyalcourt.com