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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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"Port" is Stockport, a dismal yet apparently haunting and enigmatic town in the shadow of Manchester - there's a brilliant, illuminating NT programme essay by Paul Morley - that produced the playwright Simon Stephens, who paid it the dubious compliment, ten years ago, of a play in its honour at the Royal Exchange.

That play was directed by Marianne Elliott, who 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.

Racheal, graduating from bolshie adolescence to early middle-age with a mixture of bravery and brass neck, has a younger, slightly "slow" brother in tow, Billy, and he's played with no less bravado - the acting is positively kabuki in its delineation - by newcomer Mike Noble; they're both seen in a clapped out car, in a riveting first scene, with their mother (Liz White) who's on the verge of leaving them.

Their dad, we soon discover, is no "New Man"; and actor Jack Deam doubles him with an abusive, jealously obsessed husband later on. It's all a bit grim and gruesome up north, but there's nothing "automatic" about Stephens' writing, even at this early stage in his career.

We see Racheal taunting a child molester while visiting her grandfather; robbing her own grandmother; bumbling into true love with a supermarket colleague (beautifully done by Calum Callaghan), seeing in the New Millennium in the unhappiest of circumstances; and reverting to an emotional agreement with brother and Stockport – in the same first-scene car park.

Stephens has always understood that theatre is a journey (albeit, circular): 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.

It's interesting too, that, since Port, he hasn't peddled - apart from in Punk and On the Shore of the Wide World, his best plays - the "regional" element in his writing, but he's no less a representative of the "other" national theatre of the north than distinguished Hon Members Bennett, Plater and Willy Russell.

Stephens adds a shaft of updated popular domestic dysfunctional 1980s stuff and a punk musical sensitivity that makes him "current," part of a common cultural agenda among the under-40s. And, as a serious writer, this quality - evident in every line, every scene of Port - makes him an important one, too.

Photo: Liz White (Christine) & Kate O'Flynn (Racheal) in Port. Credit: Kevin Cummins


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