Boys from the Blackstuff review

A 'powerful' adaptation of Alan Bleasdale's 'masterpiece'

Boys from the Blackstuff
Nathan McMullen and Lauren O'Neil: part of a 'tremendous' cast
(Image credit: Jason Roberts)

"How do you take one of the great TV series of the past 50 years and make it feel both familiar and new on stage?" That's the challenge dramatist-of-the-moment James Graham ("Dear England", "Quiz", "Sherwood") set himself, said Dominic Maxwell in The Times. He partially succeeds, but not fully. "Boys from the Blackstuff" – Alan Bleasdale's seminal drama about a group of unemployed Liverpudlians trying to eke out a living – was first screened in 1982 as unemployment passed three million. Angry and "blackly comic", it was received as a damning indictment of the Thatcher government. Graham's adaptation is typically adroit – he "trims, tweaks, restructures, adds flourishes of his own" – but it feels more "like a tender, tragicomic tribute" than a play in its own right. 

That's not how it struck me, said Mark Brown in The Daily Telegraph. I came out of this accomplished production hoping it goes on tour. The character people tend to remember from the original series is the troubled Yosser ("gizza job") Hughes. Barry Sloane brings the "same resounding pathos" to the part that Bernard Hill did, but the whole cast is "tremendous": from Andrew Schofield's big-hearted retired docker George Malone to Nathan McMullen's Chrissie Todd and Lauren O'Neil as his long-suffering wife Angie. Meanwhile, the deft interweaving of music, live song, choreography and projected imagery helps generate the "necessary atmosphere of tension, fear and instinctive human solidarity". 

This is a "powerful" adaptation of a "masterpiece" that works well on its own terms, agreed Mark Fisher in The Guardian. "Boys from the Blackstuff" is about politics, of course: the emotional high point (beware – spoiler alert) is Malone's funeral – symbolic of the working-class pride and values destroyed by Thatcherite economics. Yet it is also a piece in which "the laughs and outbursts of violence mask a sensitive study of male mental health". Graham's adaptation artfully melds both aspects, and makes for a "richly enjoyable show: funny, incendiary and humane".

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Liverpool's Royal Court (0151-709 4321; Until 28 October. Rating ****

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