Reviews Roundup: Boys From The Blackstuff 3.7★

National Theatre & Garrick Theatre

Barry Sloane in Boys From The Blackstuff. Photo: Alistair Muir

James Graham, the modern master of political drama, was one of the few playwrights who could possibly bring Alan Bleasdale’s class TV series Boys from the Blackstuff to the stage. The critics agreed that he has succeeded, although there was some disagreement about how well it lived up to the original. The Royal Court Liverpool production, directed by Kate Wasserberg, opened in the city where the series was set, before transferring first to the National Theatre and then The Garrick. The whole cast was praised but all eyes were on the most memorable character Yosser Hughes. Whether or not Barry Sloane ever said to the producers, ‘I can do that’, there was universal agreement that they were right to give him the job.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Sarah Hemming writing for The Financial Times (4★) called it ‘a funny, punchy, humane two-act play’, but she thought, ‘Sometimes the narrative feels unclear and bittier than it might have if Graham had written a stage drama from scratch.’ Andrzej Lukowski  at Time Out (4★) found it a stirring play’ even though ‘Graham’s adaptation can’t quite escape the fact that he’s adapting an anthology-style TV series that didn’t have a single storyline running throughout its whole length.’

Calling it ‘flawed but stirring’, Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (4★) said, ‘While Blackstuff has his customary, vigorous blend of hard politics and demotic entertainment, it’s not his subtlest work.’ He liked the way ‘Wasserberg keeps the action brisk though, and the acting is full-throated and vivid.’ As a Liverpudlian who lived in the city during the period depicted, Gary Naylor at BroadwayWorld (4★) offered a personal  perspective on the characters and events. As to the play, he found it ‘too episodic, too rooted in its specificities of industrial, northern, working class male culture teetering on the brink, too tied to its source material.’ It was he said, ‘An all-time great television show becoming a pretty good play is perhaps as much as one could have hoped for.’

Olivia Rook at LondonTheatre (4★) was more positive about James Graham’s play, proclaiming he ‘perfectly translates Bleasdale’s naturalistic drama to the stage.’ She pointed out, ‘Despite the inevitable bleakness that surrounds their lives, this is also a play with heart, warmth, and camaraderie.’ Heather Neill at The Arts Desk (4★) also felt the play worked in its own right: ‘the building of an ensemble under Kate Wasserberg’s direction, while losing something of the visceral anguish of the television series, brings a greater sense of the whole community in free fall. Liverpool is itself a presence underlined by Amy Jane Cook’s set, backed by Jamie Jenkyn’s video of the restless Mersey.’

Clive Davis in The Times (3★) wasn’t so sure. ‘Graham and the director Kate Wasserberg haven’t quite solved the problem of how to squeeze a five-part saga into a single piece. Much of the detail is lost in a blur of scene-setting.’ Then again, ‘Barry Sloane comes impressively close to reproducing the intensity of the late Bernard Hill.’ Tim Bano in The Independent (3★) had mixed feelings. ‘The strength of Bleasdale’s material is a blessing and a curse. Graham feels the need to preserve it, but that stops the play becoming something that coheres in its own right,’ he said. ‘‘Too often…it’s a tribute to a series from 40 years ago, rather than a play for today.’ However, ‘Graham nails it, not on the structural level but in its guts’

Sarah Crompton at WhatsOnStage (3★) was one of a number who felt ‘Its compression means that it becomes episodic.’ She said, ‘it doesn’t have the same visceral impact as the series. …Nevertheless, it is a thoughtful and moving piece of writing.’ She praised the director: ’Kate Wasserberg directs with a smart sense of the liveliness.’ Sam Marlowe of The Stage (3★) had similar thoughts: ‘The staging feels diffuse, the overlapping stories failing to cohere or acquire momentum. But although it doesn’t hit us hard enough where it hurts, there are still moments that stir to anger or grief.’ She observed that Yosser Hughes was played by ‘Barry Sloane as a muscular, vibrating, snarling mass of rage and pain.’

As is often the case, the two Guardian titles decided that, having reviewed it when it opened in Liverpool, they needn’t bother with its London transfer. Back then, Susannah Clapp in The Observer (4★) said ‘it lands in the present with a punch.’ Mark Fisher reporting for The Guardian (4★), having praised said, ‘It adds to a richly enjoyable show, funny, incendiary and humane.’ Mark Brown for the Telegraph (4★) wrote, ‘Graham has crafted aspects of Bleasdale’s work into a brilliantly honed two-and-a-half hours of theatre.’

Average critics’ rating 3.7★
Value Rating 50 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price.)

Boys from the Blackstuff can be seen at the National Theatre until 8 June, and then at the Garrick Theatre, London, from 13 June to 3 August 2024. 

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