Boys From the Blackstuff at the National Theatre review: flawed but stirring

 (Alastair Muir)
(Alastair Muir)

In 1982, Alan Bleasdale’s TV series Boys from the Blackstuff, about unemployed Liverpudlian road-workers, distilled the Thatcherite evisceration of regional communities and working practices. Today, James Graham’s stage adaptation feels simultaneously like an awesome period piece – as grand and remote as a diplodocus – and oddly current in its depiction of a rich nation blighted by desperation and penury.

Kate Wasserberg’s production originated at Liverpool’s Royal Court and is briefly at the National before a transfer to the West End’s Garrick Theatre, which feels like an example of frictionless mobility that didn’t exist in 1982, and is still rare now.

It's initially hard to tell our five proud, angry protagonists apart as they endure the ritual humiliation of a dole office interrogation. Gradually, distinct but unsubtle personalities emerge, along with the revelation of a rift that developed between gruffly decent Dixie (Mark Womack) and the others during their last on-the-books job in Middlesbrough a year before.

Chrissie (Nathan McMullen) is the nice guy with pet geese and a despairing wife called Angie. Loggo (Aron Julius ), the only black man in the fivesome, is the least well-rounded, there to remind us that Liverpool’s trading past included his ancestors. Dying ex-docker George (Philip Whitchurch) is the link to a nobler age of proud, organised labour; his son dies in a raid on a cash-in-hand building site.

Then there’s disturbed and volatile Yosser Hughes (Barry Sloane), unbalanced by the departure of his wife and children, and prone to accosting anyone employed with the demand: “Gizza job. I could do that.” The late Bernard Hill turned Yosser into an emblem of disenfranchisement on screen: here, Sloane shows what happens when male pride is eaten away by shame. His Yosser is also very funny, though my dim memory of Hill’s screen incarnation is of heartbreaking desolation.

 (Alastair Muir)
(Alastair Muir)

Perhaps under-employed playwrights besiege the ever-busy James Graham with cries of “gizza job”, too. Alongside this piece the author of Quiz, Ink, Tammy Faye and Best of Enemies recently premiered Punch in Nottingham and is working on a second series of Sherwood for the BBC.

While Blackstuff has his customary, vigorous blend of hard politics and demotic entertainment, it’s not his subtlest work. The piece necessarily centres a brusque working-class masculinity, there’s little tonal variation and quite a lot of meaningful underlining. “I wanted to pay my respects,” says the dodgy developer at George’s son’s funeral. “You should’ve paid them a LIVING WAGE,” spits Angie (Lauren O’Neil). She at least gets a smidgeon of character: the other women are comic stooges or ciphers.

Wasserberg keeps the action brisk though, and the acting is full-throated and vivid. Designer Amy Jane Cook gives us two looming cranes framing a screen where Liverpool’s dark skies, docks and two cathedrals swim into being. This is a blast from the past which still echoes today: flawed but stirring.

National Theatre to 8 June,, then at the Garrick Theatre 13 June – 3 Aug