Review Round-up: Stephens' Port docks at National
Set in Stockport, Port is a celebration of the human spirit as Racheal looks to the future and opts for love and life and for something better.
It runs at the National Theatre until 24 March.
Marianne Elliott... has now re-staged it, with breath-taking panache and bravura, defying the unfriendly proportions of the Lyttelton stage, and giving Stephens’ episodic yet elongated scenes a flavour that is brisk, brutal and poetic. It’s a “dreams of leaving” play given a local form and flavour by the music of Morrissey, the tang of the rebarbative dialogue and the peculiar melancholy and determined character of Racheal Keats, played with exceptional guts and savvy by Kate O'Flynn...there’s nothing “automatic” about Stephens’ writing, even at this early stage in his career...Stephens has always understood that theatre is a journey... for the characters, the audience and the narrative. This insight, with his richly poetic vein of writing and reference, is what makes him so potent; you long to see what he says next, even within the same scene.
George Orwell talked about the “good bad book” – the book that endures, despite being badly written… I think Simon Stephens has produced a “good bad play”… the evening teeters on the edge of cliché… Stephens observes that “it’s a play carved out of an attempt to see something or make sense of something”… I’m not sure the Lyttelton stage is the best home for it. What must have seemed quite intimate and fleet-of-foot at the Royal Exchange has acquired monumental scenic dimensions here… forcing the players to enlarge their physicality to fill the spaces… That said, I’d happily walk to Stockport and back if that was the only means of catching Kate O’Flynn’s mesmerising central performance as Racheal. She graces even the most prosaic, job-lot batches of dialogue with a quicksilver alertness to complex emotions.
There’s a tear and laughter in the eye as Dominic Maxwell falls for the central character of a hard-knock life… A beauty… that’s full of ugliness… Stephens paints a world that is as tender as it is tough... Racheal is an outsized character - played brilliantly by Kate O’Flynn… Her open emotionality kept me in the sweet spot between tears and laughter throughout. At first, as the family sits inside a real car on one side of the stage, the staging looks perverse. You worry that it won’t fill this big space… She brings hope and wit to each encounter... O’Flynn could be louder, but her energy sustains the evening…Stephens puts social realism into poetic flight through the depth of his empathy and the skill of his construction. He’s one of our most prolific writers.
'Port'… is a surprise. An ambivalent paean to his hometown of Stockport, it captures the grey gravity of urban British adolescence with a naturalism and warmth almost entirely absent in Stephens's recent work. Never leaving the stage, even for set and costume changes, Kate O'Flynn puts in a huge performance… But this isn't 'Corrie', and Stephens leaves the darkest chapters in his heroine's book to our imagination. It's the intelligence O'Flynn invests into Racheal that's almost more moving than what she actually suffers… anyone who came of age in a British metropolis of low repute… will find something familiar in Racheal's coming-of-age… It's definitely not Stephens' best writing but it's certainly his tenderest… O'Flynn's performance is riveting, but after a while it begins to feel too big, the naturalistic prose over-amped and over-enunciated in the vast Lyttelton.
We should just show would-be immigrants the Simon Stephens play which opened last night at our national theatre... The one time I visited Stockport I found the people perfectly decent and admirable, but Mr Stephens grew up there and seems to be both entranced and horrified by the place. Stockport is depicted as a trap, almost a drug. There is plenty of casual cruelty; profanities abound... Yes, it’s all Stockport’s fault. Not a mention of all the welfare money thrown at the town. Barely a sausage about self-advancement. This play is grindingly pessimistic in a way only a Left-wing mind can produce... Marianne Elliott’s direction tries to freight each scene transition with nostalgia but this does not quite disguise the thinness of the plot... A few people cheered at the end – possibly because we had finally reached the end.
Photo: Liz White (Christine) & Kate O'Flynn (Racheal) in Port. Credit: Kevin Cummins