Boys From The Blackstuff

“A masterclass in ensemble theatre”

Of its time and set 41 years ago in 1982, its characters and themes scream present day. In the current climate where people are dependent on food banks and zero-hour contracts to survive, Boys From the Blackstuff is as much a play for today as it ever has been. 

Originally written by Alan Bleasdale, the memorable anthology series has been adapted for the stage by James Graham with direction by Kate Wasserberg. 

Hanging in the shadow of poor decisions, our cast are found in the job centre; frustrated, self-loathing and helpless. In a city where there’s no employment to be found, people will turn to any means in order to survive. 

Setting the scene at the Royal Court was an 80s soundtrack juxtaposed with the setting of a cold construction yard, downlit blue spotlights and projections of the River Mersey on the backdrop. The set, along with costumes by Amy Jane Cook, was practical and realistic with the use of cranes as framing devices and graphic-focussed projections which helped to progress the narrative.

The play has short, snappy scenes – some very uncomfortable and even tragic to watch but broken up by the dry humour that Liverpool is known for. Transitions between scenes were smooth and complimented by a shanty song sung by the cast, showing their subliminal unity. 

This play has a mass of talent on stage, it truly is a masterclass in ensemble theatre. The cast seamlessly switched between roles with not only a change of accent but a fully transitioned demeanour. Lauren O’Neil gave a standout performance, with great comic timing as Jean and depths of emotion in Angie. Barry Sloane took us on an entertaining but ultimately wrenching journey as Yozzer, with a superb emotive performance whilst also being respectful to mental health. 

Lighting design by Ian Scott was expertly executed, not only adding depth and dimension to the production but drawing the audience into the characters’ mindsets; a standout example being the dwindling mental deterioration of Yozzer. The lighting also complimented the atmosphere of the timeframes within the story, with the past being shown as brighter times in contrast to the darker present.

Equally, sound design from Dyfan Jones was solid and dramatic but never cliché and didn’t overshadow the production. 

The thing I found most enjoyable about this show is how most of the characters not only had their chance to shine but also had their individual stories resolved. In the theatre, I knew these characters on stage and I left feeling like they were going to be ok- and that, for me, is theatre at its best. 

Overall, this is a fantastic production and whilst a lot of plays set in years gone by are depicting the same themes as society today, Boys From The Blackstuff gives us the escapism we crave whilst relating to and rooting for the characters in front of us. 

This show was reviewed on the 21st September 2023.  Boys From The Blackstuff runs at the Royal Court Liverpool until the 28th October 2023.  Tickets available here: Boys From The Blackstuff | Royal Court Theatre (liverpoolsroyalcourt.com)

Review written by Lee Gregory

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Photo credit: Jason Roberts Photography

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