Review: Port by Simon Stephens, at the National Theatre (Lyttelton stage)

Mike Noble, Liz White and Kate O'Flynn in rehearsal. Photo Kevin Cummins.

Mike Noble, Liz White and Kate O’Flynn in rehearsal. Photo Kevin Cummins.

Port is the story of Racheal, a little girl who needs to grow up. If it was a fairy tale, she would go to the woods, slay the dragon, become the woman she wants to be. But this is Stockport in the nineties, there are no mythical feats as rites of passage but boredom, no prospects, parents who don’t know how to love, feral children left to find their way alone in the shadow of the world. It sounds grim and foreboding, but Simon Stephens’ play, as directed by Marianne Elliott, has stubbornness and determination at its heart, and the energy and beauty of youth at its side.

In recent years, Simon Stephens has become one of England’s most prominent playwrights. Not only due to the volume and quality of his work (his adaptations of A Doll’s House and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are easily two of my favourite productions last year), but also his presence: whenever I see him or hear him, he is distinct and larger than life. It’s the writer as a force of nature. I love that. Port, one of his older plays, is probably more reserved than his more recent work, but even so the realism of language is filtered through his characters’ strong hearts and imaginations.

My fairy tale analogy is intentional. The play consists of incidents spanning thirteen years, and every transition is a small rite of passage of things being taken forward and things left behind. Every scene change lends a bit of magic to a realistic and washed out world.

Kate O’Flynn has the perfect energy for the role. Racheal is instinctive, warm, intelligent but also desperate when cornered. Her smiles are often darker than her tears, her words in direct contrast to her feelings. Kate O’Flynn balances the girl and the woman, the darkness and the light beautifully. The performance is also a great feat of endurance as she is on stage for the whole of the play, 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Mike Noble as her brother Billy makes a great impression as a helpless boy and as a trapped man. Liz White and Jack Deam beautifully explore themes of desperation and inevitability. Calum Callaghan as Danny makes honesty a vivid and powerful quality.

Port starts at a dead end, and leaves its characters to find their own way out. It’s hope without sentimentality.

Revstan reviews the play’s themes much better than I do.

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