'Boys from the Blackstuff' review — James Graham's adaptation is filled with heart, warmth, and camaraderie

Read our review of James Graham's adaptation of Boys from the Blackstuff, which transfers to the Garrick Theatre from 13 June and is in performances at the National Theatre until 8 June.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

The year is 2024, but watching the London transfer of Boys from the Blackstuff is a stark reminder that many of the issues experienced by working-class Liverpudlians in the early 1980s are similarly being faced by communities all over the country today.

Based on Alan Bleasdale’s moving, gritty TV series about five unemployed tarmac layers who are dogged by Department of Employment investigators (or “sniffers”), the stage adaptation by Olivier Award winner James Graham (Dear England) started life at Liverpool’s Royal Court, before transferring to the National Theatre and, soon, the Garrick in the West End.

It is hard to think of someone more suited than Graham to take on the job of adapting Bleasdale’s drama, more than 40 years after it first aired on the BBC. A writer who uses his platform to advocate for more working-class voices in the arts, Graham became a household name with his community-focused, Nottingham-based TV drama Sherwood. With Boys from the Blackstuff, he perfectly translates Bleasdale’s naturalistic drama to the stage, capturing the plight of the men’s urgent financial situation, their threatened, fragile masculinity, and the increasing strain on their families.

Despite the inevitable bleakness that surrounds their lives, this is also a play with heart, warmth, and camaraderie, as shown when the men sit around on boxes, sharing stories and putting the world to rights, or seeking advice from Snowy’s dad George, who behaves like a father to them all, sharing a pint or gently pressing money into the hand of Chrissie’s wife.

The play is also funny. Helen Carter is brilliant as Dixie’s loyal wife, who has made a little extra money on the quiet through leafleting and tries to avoid a house call from the “sniffers” by crawling between the front and back door of her home.

To the audience’s delight, Yosser’s iconic line “Gis a job” is a running, though heart-breaking, joke throughout, as he badgers a groundsman, gas metre reader, milkman, and lollipop lady for their jobs, Barry Sloane’s gruff voice insistent, incessant, and desperate. He even asks it of the Protestant Reverend — played by Jamie Peacock, who also multi-roles as one of the “sniffers” in a clever parallel between the authority of church and state — when he seeks religious guidance.

Cast of Boys from the Blackstuff at the National Theatre 1200 LT (c) Alastair Muir 0700

But Yosser’s constant, bubbling rage always threatens to — and frequently does — spill into violence. He vibrates with anxious, angry energy, a man pushed to extremes as he declares, “I want to be seen, I’m a human being, I’m alive.” His silent roar when the police come to his home is filled with anguish.

The men’s stories are weaved together and the second act fractures to show how deeply each family is impacted by unemployment, which is deftly handled by director Kate Wasserberg. A fight between Chrissie and his wife Angie, which was originally captured by Michael Angelis and Julie Andrews in Bleasdale’s “Shop Thy Neighbour” episode and reportedly took an emotional toll on the actors, is no less powerful on stage. While this is a play centred on male experiences, Lauren O’Neil is shattering as the beaten down wife whose own dreams and ambitions have been squashed by poverty.

Amy Jane Cook’s industrial set, accompanied by Jamie Jenkin’s perennially grey and gloomy video design, captures the environment of austerity, with clever touches such as the dole office queue, which resembles a police line-up, and the gallows-style wooden beams of the court, implying the association between working-class communities and criminality.

The play’s conclusion carries a blunt and powerful message about the cost of securing permanent work, but the revelation of the inner workings of the Department of Employment also serves to sanitise some of Bleasdale’s original message about the struggle of those trying to make a living within a broken system. This may not be a wholly accurate image of what it means to suffer on the receiving end of an unforgiving government, but it remains very compelling.

Book tickets for the West End transfer of Boys from the Blackstuff on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Barry Sloane as Yosser in Boys from the Blackstuff at the National Theatre. (Photo by Alastair Muir)

Originally published on

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