Simon Stephens, whose adaptation of Mark Haddon’s Swindon-set The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime was a recent National Theatre hit (it transferred to the West End last month), paints a far bleaker picture of small town life in his latest National fixture, Port. In this, his 2002 play, the Stockport-born-and-bred Stephens puts his hometown in the spotlight and it doesn’t shine brightly.
Port is a grim tale of shattered dreams and dreary, dead-end existences in a town where few dare to imagine life beyond the mundane. All, that is, except Racheal Keats (a transfixing Kate O’Flynn) who not only sees beyond the town’s borders, but even ventures – briefly – over them.
Port feels like a play of two halves. The first act opens in 1988 with a 11-year-old Racheal, her six-year-old brother Billy (Mike Noble) and weary mum settling down to spend the night in the family Ford Estate after being locked out of their home by their drunk father. Skip forward 18-months and we’re in hospital, waiting, along with Racheal and Billy for the never-seen granddad to die and so the first half continues at a frantic pace – Christine Keats leaves, Billy starts robbing Boots and Racheal steals from and verbally abuses her grandmother in what is the play’s most shocking scene.
The first act is tinged with bleak humour and a non-sentimental sadness. There is, you feel, still hope. But the first scene post-interval quickly batters away such optimism. It opens with Racheal in a hotel room on Millenium Eve with a husband we haven’t met before (played by the same actor who played her violent father – unsubtle casting at its theatrical best), thus setting the scene for a play that falls into a pit of despair and hopelessness, taking the audience with it. With its Pinteresque pauses and sharp turns, the second act changes down so many gears that there are times when it stalls. The scene with Racheal and ex-boyfriend Danny (a gentle, unambitious bloke who we first meet in the first half) in a pub garden is protracted and unsatisfying. Racheal urging (begging?) her first love to leave his wife and child should be a poignant moment of regret and lost dreams, but gets rather lost in cliche. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end, but there’s a sense that Stephens, like the characters’ lives, has backed into a corner and despite frantic revving he can’t find a way out and rather parks the plot instead.
The cast are all faultless, but special plaudits have been reserved, quite rightly, for the fantastic Kate O’Flynn who moves seamlessly from an enthusiastic 11-year-old to a down, but not out, 24-year-old,
I was reading a book recently (Jonathan Smith’s Night Window if you’re interested) that tells the story of a man whose identity is stolen. Amongst the clues his perpetrator leaves him is an encyclopedic entry for a 17th century Posture Master called Joseph Clark who could contort himself into a staggering array of shapes, from pot-bellied to a hunch-back. O’Flynn never physically changes shape – bar losing the odd bit of clothing in every on-stage ‘costume change’ (Kate never leaves the stage) – but she feels like a different actor, while still recognisably the Racheal Keats we met at the beginning of Act 1. Stephens managing to realistically maintain a consistent voice over 13 years must also be applauded as must Marianne Elliott for her unfussy, fluid direction that captures the atmosphere, if not the whole story, of the bleakness of a certain kind of ravaged town.
by Suzanne Elliott