Contemporary playwright Simon Stephens returns to his native Stockport with Blindsided, his latest play and one written specifically for the iconic round of Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
The Stockport of the late 1970’s was a very different place to one that exists now. The hat and silk industries were dying, the Merseyway shopping centre was new to the town and strikes loomed over the country. It is here that Cathy Heyer has been watching local wide boy John Connolly. She’s been examining him – a junior accountant, he’s from the Hope Valley, and a stranger new to town.
Such attention to detail intrigues Connolly. He is wrongfooted by her curious and chatty nature. From there, a savage relationship develops between the two with Cathy’s daughter Ruthie and mother Susan caught in the crossfire. Transposed against the 1979 and 1997 elections, bookending two times of change for the country, Blindsided is a harrowing portrayal of destructive relationships.
Following the conclusion of Roy and Hayley’s storyline in Coronation Street this week, much of the pre-publicity focused on Julie Hesmondhalgh’s appearance in the play. Whilst Hesmondhalgh gives a sterling performance that cements her intention to return to theatre (more of that shortly), hopefully such attention will enhance rather than detract from the play’s reception.
The stony sound of Stockport’s rain acts as a relentless metronome to the savage and raw lovemaking on stage. Blindsided is kitchen-sink drama dragged into the 21st century. The confines of working class slums are swapped for the monolithic tower block prison of Stockport. Poverty gets swapped for politics as Thatcher’s government coming into power offers change.
Katie West’s Cathy is curious, sharp, and also a little simple. With her childlike innocence West carries the play, starring in nearly every scene. Cathy’s gentle, perhaps misguided nature becomes her undoing. It would be a surprise if West didn’t win an award for her heartbreaking and strong performance. Earnest and broken in equal measure, her destructive journey is compelling.
On paper John Connolly is a rough thug in the mold of Arthur Seaton or Frank Machin. But Stephens’ characterisation combined with the tics that Andrew Sheridan brings to the role make Connolly something of a Magic Eye puzzle – something undefinable lurks beneath the depths with the true picture becoming clearer as the play marches on. It’s another powerfully arresting and sharp performance from Sheridan.
Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Susan is a classic Northern matriarch. Her curt tones, and brash manner cement her firmly as a razor sharp battleaxe. Yet her relationship with her Cathy has been just as damaging as Cathy and John’s. The breakdown of their relationship is coolly played by Hesmondhalgh. Combative scenes between her and Cathy are expertly handled and unbearably intense. The frisson experienced by the audience with her arrival on stage is quickly dissipated when they realise this is not the cuddly Hayley and instead is a fiercely hardened mother and Stephens’ script allows Hesmondhalgh to wring out not one, but two sharply defined characters.
Stephens’ script pins you to your seat with its powerfully raw story that will linger long in your mind. It’s not perfect – the ending scenes feel at odds with the tone of the rest of the play at times, but in it’s examination of destructive relationships during a strained time for Stockport, Stephens delivers with gusto. The Royal Exchange’s round is deployed wisely by director Sarah Frankcom with characters using all sides of the stage to cross each other’s paths with neat use of symmetry.
Anna Fleischle’s design is stark and bare, much like the Stockport I imagine of 1979. Fleischle’s concrete slab constructions and industrial flavoured design reflects a time when Stockport was recovering from its industrial heritage – something that still haunts the town to this day. It’s a deft touch that anchors the narrative, evoking, rather than having to show the viaducts and alleys. Only towards the end is the stage permitted to blossom and bloom, a welcome relief from the dark places you journey to.
Blindsided is a disturbing look into relationships damaged beyond repair. It takes the proud tradition of kitchen-sink drama and gives it a contemporary kick. The performers are nearly always moving, and constantly on the go keeping it a play of tension, and mad, uncontrollable energy. Simon Stephens script is dark and harrowing in places, with light touches of humour and commanding central performances to keep audiences gripped in their seats.
Blindsided continues at the Royal Exchange Manchester until 15 February. Photography by Kevin Cummins.