Alan Bleasdale’s BBC series Boys From the Blackstuff was one of the most iconic TV dramas of the 1980s.
First broadcast in 1982, it follows a group of unemployed Liverpudlian workers nicknamed “boys from the blackstuff” for their work laying tarmac.
We watch old socialist George Malone, the increasingly mentally distressed Yosser Hughes, and their mates and families trying to survive the pressures of being on the dole.
The men try to make a few quid on the side doing cash-in-hand work, but they are constantly at risk of being caught by the despised “sniffers” (spies) from the Social Security fraud department.
When the show hit the screen in 1982, unemployment under Margaret Thatcher’s hated Tory government had exceeded three million.
With working-class people across Britain facing the cost of living crisis and foodbanks increasing in our communities, it feels a pertinent moment to stage this theatre adaptation.
Writer James Graham and director Kate Wasserberg have done a brilliant job of condensing the TV series into two-and-a-half hours (including an interval) of scintillating live drama.
The play is performed on a visually striking, cleverly versatile set —designed by Amy Jane Cook— that represents the Liverpool dockyards.
Atmospheric music, moments of live song and images projected onto the back of the set all contribute to the production’s sense of cohesion and momentum.
Graham’s script captures the combination of bleak comedy and anguished tragedy that was the essence of Bleasdale’s show.
On the building site where many men work illicitly, and we see the desperate Yosser trying to persuade the profiteering boss to take him on by building the worst wall imaginable.
There is real comedy and pathos as Yosser insists that his ludicrously ramshackle creation is, in fact, a top-quality piece of craftsmanship.
However, the consequences of the men trying to escape from a fraud department raid on the site are as heartbreaking as they are believable.
The brilliance of Bleasdale’s writing and Graham’s superb adaptation is that they get to the heart of capitalism’s attitude towards the working class.
The everyday lives of characters like Dixie—an ex-tradesman who moonlights as a night watchman on the dock and Angie—used to attempt to break the dignity and resolve of working class people.
The acting by the 10-strong cast, many of whom play multiple characters, is marvellous without exception. Barry Sloane, who plays Yosser, has a particularly tricky job.
In the TV series the great actor Bernard Hill made Yosser, whose mental health has been broken by unemployment, poverty and the loss of his children, into an icon.
His constant refrain of “gizza job” became a catchphrase in an era of mass unemployment. Sloane plays the role with tremendous respect for Hill’s famous portrayal without ever descending into mere mimicry.
The outcome is a performance that captures emotively his character’s despair, powerlessness and rage.
It’s hard to imagine a better stage version of Blackstuff than this. If you live in or near Liverpool, get yourself a ticket. Otherwise, I just hope that this brilliant production goes on tour.
Boys from the Blackstuff runs until 28 October. For details go to liverpoolsroyalcourt.comOriginal post