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Boys From the Blackstuff Review: Reminder of a past era that has insidious echoes today

Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 television series captured the mood of Britain like few dramas before or since.

Unemployment has rarely been explored with such maudlin wit and the characters etched themselves into the national consciousness, particularly Michael Angelis’ good-hearted Chrissie and Yosser ‘Gizza job’ Hughes immortalised by the late, great Bernard Hill.

James Graham’s stage adaptation cannot hope to have quite the same effect as the five episode TV series but Bleasdale’s cri de coeur resonates strongly across four decades.

On an industrial set of rusting iron girders and walkways with a filmed background of the Liverpool docks, five former tarmac-layers negotiate their way through the Dept of Unemployment interrogations while risking loss of benefits by working off the books. Dodging spies or ‘sniffers’ – represented here by ghastly little jobsworth Moss (Jamie Peacock)  – the men and their families struggle for survival.

Kate Wasserberg’s production is ripe with movement and character, flowing effortlessly from one short scene to the next and punctuated by snatches of work songs like sea shanties.

When tragedy strikes the tone becomes more muted and much of the second half is dominated by a series of dialogues between the ageing labourer and bereaved father George (Philip Whitchurch) and the younger men.

Yosser’s aggressive behaviour barely disguises his desperation and Barry Sloane conveys his stomach-churning fear of loss – wife, kids, identity – superbly.

His mantra “I could do that” shifts from funny to pathetic to unbearably sad and the symbol of his unseen children provides a theatrical dividend like a kick to the heart.

Graham  occasionally unleashes a hectoring political diatribe but his grasp of theatrical rhythm is as strong as ever as drama jostles with humour.

The cast is faultless, including Nathan McMullen, George Caple, Aron Julius and Lauren O’Neil as Angie – whose despairing scene on her inability to feed her children hits hard. A timely reminder of a past era that has insidious echoes today.


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