Review: Boys from the Blackstuff at the National Theatre

by | Jun 3, 2024

Explore our detailed review of "Boys from the Blackstuff" at the National Theatre. See how James Graham's stage adaptation captures the essence of Alan Bleasdale’s classic series.
Experience the powerful revival of Alan Bleasdale’s “Boys from the Blackstuff” at the National Theatre. In this detailed review, we explore how James Graham’s adaptation skillfully brings the iconic 1982 series to the stage, capturing its poignant portrayal of unemployment and societal struggles. Discover the standout performances, innovative set design, and enduring relevance of this modern classic.


Alan Bleasdale’s seminal television series “Boys from the Blackstuff” was a poignant commentary on the devastating effects of unemployment in 1982 Britain. James Graham’s stage adaptation, now at the National Theatre, retains the raw emotional power of the original while offering a fresh perspective. The play opens with Margaret Thatcher’s unmistakable voice, starkly reminding the audience of the human dignity lost to unemployment, setting the tone for the powerful narrative that follows.

Amy Jane Cook’s innovative set design, featuring rusted iron structures, provides a flexible yet grim backdrop, symbolizing the decaying industrial landscape. The stark contrast between Thatcher’s rhetoric and the reality of five men queuing at the benefits office is immediately striking. This opening scene encapsulates the play’s central theme: the dehumanizing impact of joblessness.

Originally produced at Liverpool’s Royal Court and soon to transfer to the Garrick Theatre, the play doesn’t match the visceral impact of the TV series due to its compressed format. However, it remains a thoughtful and moving piece. The episodic structure means the characters’ lives become emblematic rather than deeply personal. Yet, the play’s humane view of work and its critique of societal attitudes towards the unemployed resonate strongly, serving as a timeless lesson.

The narrative is driven by the contrasting characters of Yosser Hughes and Chrissie. Barry Sloane’s portrayal of Yosser, with his desperate cry of “gizza job,” is both heartbreaking and compelling. His wild-eyed desperation contrasts sharply with Nathan McMullen’s Chrissie, whose gentleness and conciliatory nature make him a tragic figure. Both actors bring their unique energy and depth to these roles, honoring the legacy of Bernard Hughes and Michael Angelis.

Kate Wasserberg’s direction brings out the liveliness in Bleasdale’s writing, preserved by Graham. The interplay of humor and tragedy is masterfully handled, with scenes that linger in the mind long after the curtain falls. Snowy’s hymn to plastering, moments before his tragic downfall, and Yosser’s desperate encounters with clergy are particularly powerful, blending humor and pathos in a way that underscores the characters’ humanity.

The play’s connection to Liverpool is palpable, enhanced by Jamie Jenkin’s evocative video projections of the Mersey. These visuals, combined with Philip Whitchurch’s touching portrayal of ex-docker George, evoke a deep sense of place and history. George’s reminiscences about Liverpool’s maritime past and its decline due to changing trade routes add a poignant historical dimension to the play.

Despite the historical setting, “Boys from the Blackstuff” remains strikingly relevant. Lauren O’Neil’s portrayal of Angie, a woman on the brink of despair, highlights contemporary issues of poverty and hunger, drawing clear parallels to today’s economic challenges. The play’s truthfulness and emotional resonance make it a powerful commentary on the enduring struggle against poverty and societal neglect.

In conclusion, “Boys from the Blackstuff” at the National Theatre is a compelling adaptation that honors its source material while speaking to modern audiences. Its powerful performances, innovative set design, and thoughtful direction make it a must-see. This revival not only reintroduces a classic to new audiences but also underscores its timeless relevance, prompting the BBC to re-air the original series. A modern classic has indeed been resurrected, reminding us of the ongoing fight for dignity and respect in the face of economic adversity.


Barry Sloane and Aron Julius. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

Nathan McMullen and Philip Whitchurch. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

Barry Sloane. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

Barry Sloane and Jamie Peacock. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

Nathan McMullen and Lauren O’Neil. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

Nathan McMullen and Aron Julius. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.

Barry Sloane, Dominic Carter, Mark Womack, Nathan McMullen, Jamie Peacock, Aron Julius, Lauren O’Neil and Philip Whitchurch. Photo by Andrew AB Photography.




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