The week in theatre: Boys from the Blackstuff; Vanya; Mlima’s Tale – review

Liverpool’s Royal Court; Duke of York’s; Kiln, London
Alan Bleasdale’s 80s TV classic about jobless workers hits home in James Graham’s adaptation; Andrew Scott is not alone in his one-man Chekhov; and Lynn Nottage adds imagination to a tale of ivory smuggling

The big revelation for me this week was the Royal Court. Not the theatre in London’s Sloane Square but the whopping Liverpool theatre where you are offered different new writing and your supper, cabaret-style, for £30. The venue specialises in work that features the city, which is not a restriction but a focus. It’s selling out – more than 1,000 seats – for its staging, co-produced with Stockroom (formerly Out of Joint), of Boys from the Blackstuff.

Alan Bleasdale had always turned down requests to make a stage version of his television triumph, the tale of tarmacers whose livings were destroyed in the 1980s, which was first a BBC Play for Today then a series. He thought it would work only on the small screen. Then director Kate Wasserberg introduced him to the plays of James Graham. Bleasdale was converted: Graham has, he says, “taken my voice and thrown it” – thrown it so that it lands in the present with a punch.

The story is both specific and far-reaching. Amy Jane Cook’s big, exhilarating design gives the action a pulse. Scarlet girders and scaffolding reach across the stage; the videos of Jamie Jenkin (who started at the Court in the box office) offer a glimmer of the Mersey and a glimpse of the city’s two cathedrals, Anglican and Catholic, descending like bell jars. Irony twists throughout. Men whose lives were dedicated to the idea of being on the move – building roads and working on the docks – are brought to a halt by unemployment. At a time when only ecclesiastics and those dispensing benefits (or snooping on claimants) are in regular employment, the judgments of church and state are intertwined. At the funeral of George, the conscience of the play, acted with fine concentration by Andrew Schofield, these inquisitorial presences are recognised as moral prison bars.

The divisions, the tornness, the waste of talent are shrewdly captured by Nathan McMullen’s Chrissie – fighting against the temptation to betray. It is he, not Yosser, who is the play’s guiding figure. But Bernard Hill made Yosser Hughes unforgettable, so it is wonderful that Barry Sloane re-embodies him in all his magnetic fury: butting the overseer who criticises his bricklaying (the gaps are for ventilation) and his script, so that his words spurt in little bouts. Yosser has been made feral. He is a strange kind of martyr, here beaten by police to the music of a liturgical lament by Dyfan Jones. Yet his energy and wit charge the theatrical air. “Gissa job,” he says to the priest. “I could do that” – and swings an imaginary thurible.

My second revelation this week was about one-man shows. They don’t have to be all about the one man. Andrew Scott is indeed tremendous in Vanya, playing all the parts in a slimmed-down, updated version of Chekhov’s play, but he is not brimming over with dazzle; he takes the audience into the action, and non-action. This is not merely an acting showcase; it is a joint remoulding. Listed as “co-creators” alongside Scott are adapter Simon Stephens, director Sam Yates and designer Rosanna Vize.

Andrew Scott in Vanya.
‘Not a series of perky cameos’: Andrew Scott in Vanya. Photograph: Marc Brenner

This cooperation – a true theatricality – has something of Chekhov’s antiheroic generosity: any one of his characters could be the centre of his plays. It suggests, too, something of the way Scott morphs from one person to another: blurring the boundaries so that you don’t always know immediately who is who. This is not a series of perky cameos; what hangs in the air is what goes on between characters.

What goes on is fiercer than traditional Chekhov – though that is a fast-fading concept. Boredom is raging loss and disappointment. Wistful romance is sexual longing (Scott rather overdoes the writhing here). The decline of forests is a looming catastrophe. Oh, and the samovar is a teapot. Vize’s design is enabling rather than atmospheric: a swing, a plywood wall, a central door through which Scott goes to mark a change of perspective.

There is real reinterpretation: the femme fatale Helena does not sweetly seduce, she commands; her voice as deep as a man’s. And sudden insight. The egotism of the father – not an academic but a film-maker – is captured in a terrifying square smile that he switches on mechanically as if he were clicking a camera. Good-hearted, principled, capable Sonia, grief-stricken at her plain face, winds a tea towel in her hands when anxious, throws it over her face when embarrassed; Helena gestures at it dismissively to show what a mere homebody the young woman is.

Sly jokes are implanted. Dad is mocked for having made his career out of adaptations – like this adaptation? Towards the end, an invisible being is greeted warmly – and responds that he has been there all along. In the closing moments the chair in which Vanya himself sits is empty. Scott crouches beside it as Sonia (no tea towel), looking up, addressing her speech to “uncle”. The play’s supposed main character is – as always – defined by those around him. As he thought himself to be.

The American playwright Lynn Nottage is at last coming in force to the British stage. Later this month Clyde’s opens at the Donmar; in the spring The Secret Life of Bees was at the Almeida. Meanwhile, Mlima’s Tale, which premiered at the Public Theater in New York in 2018, is given an imaginative prod by Miranda Cromwell.

Based on a 2014 article by Damon Tabor, the play tracks the path of ivory smuggling: from the killing by poachers of a great tusker in a Kenyan game park to the ogling of the carved tusks in a Beijing ivory shop. In 16 brief scenes – a moonlit savannah, a Nairobi office, a cargo container, a Vietnamese carving shop – a cast of five multitask as rustlers and rangers, corrupted sea captains, arms suppliers, reporters, wildlife spokesman, dealers (Natey Jones is slinkily persuasive as a particularly venal operator) and indiscriminate buyers. Oh, and as an elephant.

Ira Mandela Siobhan in Mlima’s Tale.
‘How rare to see an animal evoked rather than mimicked’: Ira Mandela Siobhan in Mlima’s Tale. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Mlima – the name means mountain – is the butchered creature. He is incarnated by Ira Mandela Siobhan: entrapped and attacked, then haunting the action. Shelley Maxwell’s movement direction is vital: Siobhan sways gravely but never does obvious elephant trundling; as he bends and uncurls, his arms, striped with white paint, reach out in the shape of tusks. Entwining himself in scenes in which these tusks are hacked and traded, he leaves a smudge of paint or dust on everyone he touches: the mark of complicity.

How rare to see an animal evoked rather than mimicked, without cuteness or sentimentality. Amelia Jane Hankin and Amy Mae conjure Mlima’s effect and landscape with set design and lighting, creating a world of shadows and suggestion from which he emerges, memory becoming substance, to the ripple of Femi Temowo’s music. The staging is mesmerising but not driving enough fully to deliver the urgency of its subject. In under 20 years, elephants will be close to extinction: more are being killed than are being born.

Star ratings (out of five)
Boys from the Blackstuff
Mlima’s Tale


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in theatre: Clyde’s; The Confessions; The Score – review
Lynn Nottage wires us into American life with her all-consuming truck-stop cafe drama; Alexander Zeldin weaves slow magic from his mother’s memories; and Brian Cox makes a formidable JS Bach

Susannah Clapp

29, Oct, 2023 @10:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: The Hunt; Present Laughter; The Damned – review
Young performers shine in a riveting adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s film about a falsely accused teacher. And Andrew Scott is a Noël Coward natural

Susannah Clapp

30, Jun, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Sweat; The Convert; The Tragedy of King Richard the Second – review
Lynn Nottage brilliantly dramatises industrial unrest in small-town America in the year’s most powerful play

Susannah Clapp

23, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: White Teeth; Dealing With Clair – review
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth bounds on to the stage leaving some of the novel’s subtleties behind. And 30 years on, Martin Crimp’s Dealing With Clair has chilling resonance

Susannah Clapp

11, Nov, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Handbagged; The Cherry Orchard; Clutch – review
Moira Buffini’s damning satire imagining the Queen’s weekly meetings with Margaret Thatcher acquires poignancy; James Macdonald directs Chekhov in outer space; and a driving lesson for us all

Kate Kellaway

25, Sep, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Missing; Holy Sh!t; The Humans – review
Missing reappears three years after fire interrupted its run at the Battersea Arts Centre, while the Kiln opens with some topical grievances

Susannah Clapp

16, Sep, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Indecent; NW Trilogy; East Is East – review
Cultural identity unites a Jewish writer’s shockingly radical play, diverse tales from Kilburn and Ayub Khan Din’s 1996 classic

Kate Kellaway

19, Sep, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Pass Over; Love, Loss & Chianti and more – review
Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play about the US race divide flits thrillingly from laughter to rage

Kate Kellaway

01, Mar, 2020 @10:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Closer, The Tempest, The Darkest Part of the Night – review
Patrick Marber’s four-way passion play still adds up; Sean Holmes takes enjoyable liberties with his party island Tempest; and the heartfelt vies with the spelled out in Zodwa Nyoni’s new work

Kate Kellaway

07, Aug, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Ghost Quartet; High Fidelity; When the Crows Visit – review
Two recently opened London theatres make their mark, with love and loss round the camp fire, and a sparky reworking of High Fidelity that just needs a few good tunes

Susannah Clapp

09, Nov, 2019 @5:00 PM