Review: Boys From The Blackstuff

Boys from the Black Stuff dress rehearsal at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool
Date: 23/09/2023

It takes some chops to step into Bernard Hill’s boots – or, indeed, moustache – but Barry Sloane’s take on Yosser Hughes is electrifying and terrifying in the Royal Court’s new adaptation of Boys From The Blackstuff.

Sloane delivers a portrait of silent desperation, punctuated with moments of fury and violence. With Yosser’s trademark black attire he sometimes has the look of a Frankenstein’s Monster rampaging about the stage, forever in search of a job he seems to view as an almost physical entity: His “Gis a job; go on, gis it rightfully front and centre. In the TV version Bleasdale’s own kids played Yosser’s, following him from buildings site to dole office; here there’s a sorrowful tiwst. Yosser is a creature every bit as tragic as he is monstrous and Slaone delivers a genuine tour de force in a production full of impressive performances.

Boys from the Black Stuff dress rehearsal at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool

The Boys are a gang of tarmacers (the Blackstuff) who are on the uppers: stitched up doing a foreigner in Middlesbrough, they’ve returned to Liverpool broke and broken. Dixie, the foreman (Mark Womack) has shunned his former workmates in disgust; Chrissy and Loggo are working cash-in-hand and dodging ‘sniffers’ from the DoE while signing on; George is losing a battle with ill-health; poor old Yosser has lost his mind.

All are bound in a system designed to harass and punish while offering no prospect of work, dignity or hope in a Liverpool trapped in managed decline and a Tory government that – at best – is indifferent and at worst sees the city as collateral damage of an economic experiment.

Boys From The Blackstuff is proper theatre, Royal Court style.

James Graham’s new script cleverly condenses and restructures Alan Bleasdale’s six-part serial, first broadcast between 1980-1982, but leaves key characters, moments and dynamics untouched. New material slots in seamlessly, but Graham and directors Kate Wasserberg pay due reverence to the original script. Yosser is still desperate, Dan; George still gets his final, stirring speech; Dixie still fights with his son – and his own sense of honour. Loggo’s role is fleshed out here too and his motivation – how he views his role within the Boys – is given important context.

If Yosser is the fist, Dixie the conscience and George the brain, then perhaps it’s Chrissy who is the heart of the play. Too nice for his own good, reckon most, including his own wife and Yosser, the relentless emasculation and frustration lead to a catastrophic confrontation with wife Angie in what is perhaps the toughest moment in a play full of them, Nathan McMullen giving Chrissie the humour and the pathos that Michael Angelis did.

Yet Boys From The Blackstuff has plenty of laughs too, this is the Royal Court after all. Graham and Wasserberg augment the mordant humour in Bleasdale’s original scripts. Both Helen Carter and Lauren O’Neil in multiple roles wring plenty humour out of their vignettes, while the byplay between the Boys is never less than entertaining.

A stark, docks-style set and backlighting means the sets evoke the vast hopelessness of post-industrial, pre-culture Liverpool and some moments of theatricality take the breath away. It’s a production firing on all cylinders.

Boys from the Black Stuff dress rehearsal at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool

Boys from the Black Stuff dress rehearsal at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool.

Boys From The Blackstuff feels like an apotheosis for the Royal Court, which has now passed 100 productions since it reopened in 2006. Along the way there have been full houses that would have any theatre in the land looking in in envy, very impressive homegrown productions and moments of downright genius. But there have been duffers too and it now feels time for the Royal Court to move into a more ambitious space.

Boys From The Blackstuff proves it. It’s proper theatre, Royal Court style.

Boys From The Blackstuff
Royal Court
Until 28 October

Images: Jason Roberts