N.B. These comments refer to the first preview night of Port on 22nd Jan. In general I agree with articles like this one by Jake Orr for AYT – http://www.ayoungertheatre.com/should-bloggers-review-previews-i-say-no/) – previews are by no means a finished product, and the success of a production only truly becomes apparent in front of a live audience, however meticulously rehearsed. Having said that, the only ticket I managed to get hold of was for this preview performance, so for practical reasons it’s that one I’ll be writing about; as such I’ve tried to focus on core elements of the piece rather than features that I’d expect to be altered (and I’ve put it in the title, to appease any complainers).
First performed in 2002, this revival of Simon Stephens’ Port could, on paper, be mistaken for a new piece of writing: its rather bleak yet darkly humorous coming-of-age tale of a young woman attempting to escape her troubled upbringing still feels credible and – to coin a horribly overused term – relevant in its themes and explorations. However, despite some impressive performances and intelligent staging, this production failed to grip me entirely, and seems to be missing a spark of brilliance and excitement that Stephens’ work so often promises.
At the heart of it all is a wonderful performance by Kate O’Flynn as the vulnerable but spirited Racheal. Embodying the combination of humour and gloom to perfection, she shines equally brightly as an over-confident 11-year-old, a desperate 17-year-old and a hopeful 24-year-old. The ever-tricky transition from childhood to adulthood is accomplished flawlessly: O’Flynn may be assisted here with some simple but effective costume changes carried out seamlessly on stage, but when compared to the somewhat less believable transition of her brother Billy (Mike Noble), her adaptability as an actress is evident. On the whole Noble gives a solid performance which flourishes more strongly as the play progresses, but his credibility as a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old is rather lacking. Elsewhere, Calum Callaghan strikes a beautifully balanced note as a sensitive but down-to-earth Danny, while the doubling of the consistently powerful Jack Deam is effective in demonstrating the cyclical nature of violence and oppression in Racheal’s life.
This cycle is evident in the parallels which emerge throughout the work, as the cleverly shifting sets and the actors’ movements carry echoes of previous scenes. Beginning and ending in the same location perhaps suggests stagnancy, yet the differing tones of the episodes lend the work a sense of progression which, overall, it is in danger of lacking. While the two scenes between Danny and Racheal move from a hopeful new romance to a realisation of a missed opportunity, the return to the car park where Racheal’s story began depicts the changes her hard life has enacted upon her. Yet the emotion this elicits is rather strangled by a corny ending – no doubt it is intended to be uplifting, but the literal sunrise feels like overkill.
It’s strange and a little disappointing that a production with fine performances and clearly affecting themes did not carry much force or impact. Perhaps my reaction would have been markedly different in 2002; perhaps it is a sign that audiences are becoming more and more resistant to the ‘shock factor’. The instances of domestic abuse would be shocking if they were happening in reality – as indeed, they do. Yet I am forced to confront the fact that I wasn’t shocked at watching this on stage; it seemed, horrible as it is to state, predictable, expected, unsurprising – something that these themes should never be. It was this sense of predictability that prevented this production from totally engaging me and producing real fireworks, a point which, beyond the realms of this particular production, raises some interesting questions about the desensitisation of audiences today.