The extent to which you appreciate James Graham’s adaptation of Boys from the Blackstuff might depend partly on how well you know Alan Bleasdale’s original television series. It consisted of just five episodes, originally transmitted from 10th October to 7th November 1982. They were a follow-up to the one-off The Black Stuff, performed in the Play for Today series in 1980, although it had been filmed in 1978.
A tribute to Bleasdale's imagination that riled the government of the day
It soon developed a cult following and the dates are important, because it’s critique of high levels of unemployment and the personal and social consequences that come with it coincided with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the austerity and recession that followed. These Boys, however, are not the miners who experienced the bitter confrontations with her and the police. This black stuff is the tar that the five now out-of-work men used as road builders.
Amy Jane Cook’s impressive set establishes the industrial dockland setting of Liverpool and flexible gantries prove useful in creating various settings for the action, but the grandeur of the huge cranes seems detached from the specifics of the men’s work; part of another industry and another story. It comes into its own, however, in the scenes when the men are lined up answering the same old questions from the benefits agency, like suspects in an identity parade.
The bureaucratic benefits system, and those who administer it with the aim of meeting targets, serves to break down these would-be hard-working men, eroding their dignity and embroiling them in a world of humiliation. However, Director Kate Wasserberg keeps a balance in the moods. The heavy and tragic are contrasted with plenty of wit and humour. Barry Sloane as the unhinged Yosser demonstrates encapsulates this mix, however, his recurring refrain in the original, which became his mantra, is here laboured to death. “Gizza job,” he would say, “Go on, gizzit, go ‘head, giz it if you’ve got it, giz it, I can do it. Giz it then. Go ‘head, gizza job.” The brief scene in which he repeats it ad nauseam to every worker on the street is particularly absurd, but setting that aside he gives a powerful performance as the man driven to anger and tears by the loss of everything he values in life.
The rest are in similar situations yet, setting aside the odd dodgy practice, dignity and attachment to principles is a characteristic of these men. This is well illustrated in an emotional exchange between Angie (Lauren O’Neil) and husband Chrissie (Nathan McMullen). By now she is desperate for some income and implores him to take a job he has been offered, but issues of loyalty stand in his way. Snowy (George Caple) similarly sticks to his beliefs in socialism as the way to a brighter future, rather than caving in to the capitalists.
Andrew Schofield as George, a retired man of wisdom and sound advice, captures the joy of his age. He’s a refuge to whom others can turn and a man who’s seen it all before and knows how to live through and overcome troubles and mourn the losses the community suffers. His is the voice the government would like us all to listen to as he encourages us to come to each other’s assistance while they abandon us.
There are further fine performances from the rest of the cast, many doubling up in multiple roles. There also so several more memorable scenes, but as a whole the production lacks cohesion. The series focussed on the story of one of the men in each instalment. This worked well in the original but that episodic approach also dominates this stage version. Effectively this makes for a series of vignettes that lack depth and provide no more than a series of snapshots about what is going on in their lives and how they relate to each other. It serves to introduce the characters, and set the scene, but we have to wait until act two before the biting effects of their circumstances are brought home.
As a trip down memory lane it might have a comfort factor and it's a tribute to Bleasdale's imagination that riled the government of the day.