Review: THE BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF, National Theatre

Iconic television series by Alan Bleasdale brought to the stage by James Graham

By: May. 30, 2024
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Review: THE BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF, National Theatre
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Boys From The BlackstuffWe were seen. Eventually.

In 1982, in the aftermath of the previous year’s Toxteth riots, decades of post-industrial atrophy and being caught still looking west to America when the nation was now looking east to Europe, the Conservative government considered cutting Liverpool adrift. ‘Managed decline’ was the Orwellian phrase secretly bandied about 220 miles away in Whitehall. Sure, we could provide troubadours and jesters, but nothing else, a people to be brushed under the carpet as, seven years later, they were after the Hillsborough Disaster.

Two unlikely saviours emerged, one with a mane of blond hair, the other with a black moustache. Michael Heseltine believed in Liverpool and showed us to the world with his International Garden Festival, an idea far ahead of its time. The other was Yozzer Hughes, the broken, defiant, tragic everyman who demanded to be seen. In the autumn of that bleak year, he was seen, by millions of BBC viewers who, perhaps for the first time, viscerally understood the impact of Thatcherism on individuals and communities. 

With high streets returning to states of decrepitude last seen 40 years ago, Liverpool’s Royal Court staged James Graham’s adaptation of Alan Bleasdale’s iconic television series and it now arrives in London for a run at The National Theatre before going into the West End. For someone who (like so many) left Liverpool around the time of the events depicted, I should feel perfectly positioned to put a pencil to my temple and pass judgment, but I don’t - more of that later.

Boys From The Blackstuff

Graham is loyal to his source material - I’m sure the houses for its hometown first run would have stormed the stage if a Scrappy Doo style update ‘for the kids’ were introduced to the near-sacred five lads with their shovels. That does cause some issues that hobble the pace of the play, with necessary but clunky exposition up front to explain the seething tensions between the once tight-knit group of tarmacers forever riven by ‘Middlesbrough’, and an episodic structure that bounces us from one Boy to the next, characters fleshed out and then whisked away. 

We don’t see much of Loggo (Aron Julius) who jumps a ride out of town, optimistic about his chances elsewhere, leading, generations on, to the joke that Scousers are like rats in London - you’re never more than six feet away from one. Dixie’s dilemma is truncated too, his reluctant complicity in petty dockside thievery with echoes of Upton Sinclair’s Chicago-set novel The Jungle strongly evoked.  

The sage of the group, George Malone (Phillip Whitchurch) provides the memories of the city’s glorious past on both the grand scale of its teeming trade and at the personal level of men and women living in a shared social and psychological space in order to get by and, in occasionally, get on. For some, Malone’s tales will tip the mood into sentimentality (never far away in Liverpool) but I know that when I first attend a match at Everton’s new stadium, growing now on the site of Bramley Moore Dock, I’ll think those same thoughts and I’ll have to resist saying them out loud to my own son. I might not succeed.

Chrissie carries the low-key manifestation of what Thatcherism did to proud men in the headlong dash to a transformed economy. Nathan McMullen is torn between his loyalty to his mates and his principles on the one hand and to his wife (Lauren O’Neil) and family on the other. Laughing instead of crying, the nice guy is caught between an old world of class solidarity and the coming world of individual aspiration. It was a battle finally, incontestably won ten years later in Basildon on General Election night. Chrissies everywhere knew the game was up.

It’s Yozzer who packs the punch - or is that the headbutt? - of Kate Wasserberg’s production. Barry Sloane has the coat, the mad eyes and the wholesale disregard for personal space that Bernard Hill so memorably captured, the man a roiling sea of existential fear, vestigial pride and barely suppressed aggression. Once seen, never forgotten.

Back in 1982, nobody used the phrase ‘mental health’ outside hospital administration - then people had ‘trouble with their nerves’. Actually, that’s not quite right: women had trouble with their nerves, men had… nothing. There was no language, no discourse available to talk about it - just violence (often behind closed doors), drinking and rage. Yozzer is drowning in a neurosis curdling into psychosis, a near-physical sense of being hollowed out by every element of his self being taken away as he insists “Gissa job”, his only route back. There is no support, indeed only its opposite, as the Department of Employment ‘sniffers’ pursue him and the other Boys for their black economy activity. He is not seen by anyone inside the play - but he was outside, and remains an instantly recognisable rebuke to those who find paraphrases for the misquoted Tebbitism “Get on your bikes and find some work!”

Boys From The Blackstuff

Does it all work as a stage play? I’m not so sure that it does, too episodic, too rooted in its specificities of industrial, northern, working class male culture teetering on the brink, too tied to its source material. (The exception is the handling of Yozzer’s kids, famously played by Bleasdale’s own children on TV and here, well, here re-imagined in a beautiful coup de théâtre). The laughlines dry a little in the mouth - like Steptoe and Son, the tragic has so overwhelmed the comic that even to smile seems like a betrayal. Was I alone in almost wanting to shush the giggles provoked by Yozzer's absurd demolition of social conventions, funny lines from a man who is anything but a figure of fun?

Nevertheless, the power and the anger, if not the shock, of The Boys From The Blackstuff is captured and compressed into two and a half hours and that surely trumps my misgivings. An all-time great television show becoming a pretty good play is perhaps as much as one could have hoped for.

Which takes me back to my earlier question. I was so close to the material that I’m not sure I can conjure the distance a reviewer’s objectivity demands. I knew people like these (I damn near became one) but it’s more than that. Unlike Yozzer, I was seen, but many like me were not and I’m grateful to those who saw me. But that fortune almost disqualifies me from judging, with any sense of perspective, these men whom I could have been: Loggo in my teens; Yozzer in my twenties; Chrissie in my thirties; Dixie in my forties and now George in my sixties. I’m still too close to the flame to see the shadows behind it.      

Boys From The Blackstuff at The National Theatre until 6 June and at the Garrick Theatre from 13 June to 3 August

Photo images: Alastair Muir




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