I have developed a dubious habit of collecting theatres. This has meant that apart from the Christmas children's show and a couple of non NT productions I haven't missed a show on one of the National's three main stages since 2011. I mention this because it has meant that I am going to a lot of things which I might previously not have bothered with partly because I want to keep the run going. Apart from the fact that Marianne Elliot was directing it, there wasn't much else in advance that I was specially looking forward to about this. All of which goes to show that sometimes the best things come upon one most unexpectedly.
Port is first and foremost a really powerful play. As a story it is very simple – an oft told tale of a disfunctional family centred on the daughter, Rachael (the superb Kate O'Flynn). But just because it's simple doesn't lessen it as a work. Partly this is because Simon Stephens writes real poetry. This may seem suprising given that there is quite a lot of swearing, but for me this is like the swearing in Black Watch or D.C. Moore's The Swan. You could not tell this story about these people without it. It takes perhaps a scene for the ear to adjust and after that it just fits. The second thing about Stephens's writing is he captures those awful moments of trying to find words to express the hardest things. There are places where you can just feel the emotions under the surface that want to break out and can't. Perhaps the best way to sum up the play is that it feels emotionally true, and heartbreaking.
The play is ably supported by another excellent piece of work on the directing side from Marianne Elliot. As with The Curious Incident she's partnered by Scott Graham as Movement Director. I honestly can't think of another British director currently from whom one has this sense of care about the physical side of the performance. This manifests itself in the way the scenes flow into each other, in the awkwardness (which never feels staged) of the teenage encounter in the bus shelter, but also in those wonderful little moments I've talked about before which convey so much with so little. I could make a long list of them from this production, but I would single out O'Flynn hiding behind her locker door smiling as Calum Callaghan's Danny awkwardly tells her how much he likes her, and the early part of the hotel room scene with its undercurrent of breakdown.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Across the board they feel finely observed, perhaps organic is the word I want, natural. Kate O'Flynn's National debut is the most moving I can remember since Ruth Wilson appeared in Philistines. The role is a gift, but also a tough ask – the character has to age from 11 to 24 over the course of the evening. O'Flynn brings it off superbly. In the penultimate crunch scene my heart went out to her. As her brother Billy, Mike Noble is similarly impressive turning from manic shoplifting teen, to prison bruised and a little lost at the end. Calum Callaghan's decent Danny is endearing and his second scene with O'Flynn leaves you pondering what might have been. Even Jack Deam's Kevin is awful in a way that invites pity (I mean in terms of the character) rather than disgust.
In short, well as usual not really, this is a powerful, moving evening. It's disappointing therefore, that there were quite a number of empty seats and other critics have tended to sound rather grudging. According to a member of staff I chatted with on the way out there have been complaints from older members of the audience about the swearing. I wondered whether there might be some unacknowledged Southern snobbery at work. The Daily Mail critic denounced it as a piece left-wing pessimism. But I don't think this is particularly a political play, or a play with a message, or a play that preaches. To me it's a play about the trials of these people's lives, perhaps more than anything else about the trials of love. And it brought tears to my eyes. This is another occasion when I say put aside your preconceptions and/or prejudices and just go.
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