Photo: Alastair Muir

We’ve been looking forward to seeing Boys From The Blackstuff: this adaptation of Alan Bleasdale’s 1980s hit TV show opened last year at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, produced by Kevin Fearon, and was met with almost universal acclaim. It has now transferred to London, opening this week at the National Theatre for a brief stint before transferring to the West End. It’s written by James Graham, one of our leading political playwrights – we’ve previously covered his shows Dear England (recent recipient of the Olivier Award for Best New Play) and also Best of Enemies.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, Boys From The Blackstuff follows the story of five now-unemployed Liverpudlian men who had previously been tarmac layers (‘the black stuff’ being slang for tarmac). We meet our five protagonists as they’re in the dole queue, answering probing questions from the staff at the Department of Employment about their availability for work. There is a suspicion that our five may be doing some cash-in-hand work on the side… which indeed they are.

It tells a compelling story – unsurprisingly for a James Graham play it’s very political. It’s quite gritty: we’re in Thatcher’s 1980s, watching as employment really takes its toll in the northern cities which have lost their industries. We’re in Liverpool, where the docks are a shadow of their former self – the Mersey being too shallow for the larger ships now in use for transatlantic trade, and the city facing the wrong way for trade with Europe. We witness the impact this has on people’s sense of worth, their pride, their ability to provide: there’s some thoughtful exploration of masculinity and mental health issues. There’s also a surprising amount of humour – it’s dark comedy, for sure, but it lands well.

We should note that the play has a few shortcomings. We felt that a handful of moments lacked the nuance we’ve come to expect from Graham’s social commentaries, and some of the characters feel a bit one-dimensional. In particular it’s not a great representation of women – granted, it’s a show about the boys and the focus is unsurprisingly more on the men than the women, but the female characters are, for the most part, reduced to caricatures which is disappointing in 2024.

On the whole we enjoyed Boys From The Blackstuff – there’s room for refinement but it tells a good story and makes some  thoughtful points about topical issues, and it does so with the charm and humour you’d expect from a play set in Liverpool. It’s currently at the National Theatre until 8th June, then will transfer to The Garrick Theatre from 13th June.

GAY TIMES gives Boys From The Blackstuff: 4/5

More information can be found here.