Beamish Boy

Ian Skelton
Gala Theatre, Durham
(2007)

Publicity image

There is what one might call a sub-genre of plays in the North East (probably, I imagine, reflected right throughout the country in different ways): plays based on the trials, tribulations and struggles of working class families - unemployment, disaffected young people, youth crime, the family falling into dysfunction, lack of understanding - even warfare - between the generations, the role of the man where male unemployment is very high, against a backdrop of the loss of the heavy industry (mining, shipbuilding, steel production) which was the region's mainstay in the past. It includes the legacy of iconic events: the Jarrow Crusade and, more recently, the Miners' Strike.

Ian Skelton's new play, directed by Simon Stallworthy, touches on all of this and manages also to include that modern scourge, the uncaring, aggressive property developer for whom profit is all and lying, cheating and intimidation are just part of the day's work. And all of this in the confines of three generations of a family of six.

There's grandad Jackie Bridges (Donald McBride) who was not only the youngest to take part in the Jarrow March but was also a pitman during the Strike, full of - and ever willing to tell -stories of his life. Then there's his son Keith (John Sumner), out of work and bitter about it; Keith's wife Margaret (Jan Holman), the family breadwinner, totally taken up with the problems of the children at the Nursery she runs; their daughter Elaine (Grace Stilgrove) who, together with her husband Derek (Paul Hartley), has great plans for the property development deal underway at the moment (held up because one resident of the old miners' cottages, her grandfather, steadfastly refuses to move); and, finally, son Dean, still at school and in trouble with the law. But of course there is no doubt all will come right in the end!

It has to be said that they are pretty stereotypical characters but the actors do with them the best they can, particularly McBride, a long-established NE favourite, whose comic timing is impeccable.

This may be Skelton's first full length play but he has a background in writing for TV and film, and it shows. Scenes are short, sometimes very short, and so the flow of the piece - and, at times, the dramatic tension - is disrupted by the necessity for props to be brought on and off in blackout and, occasionally, for a hospital bed to be wheeled on and off.

Simon Pell's design - a long, low vista of a pit village against the vast sky of the cyclorama and two rostra with, respectively, Keith and Margaret's kitchen and Jackie's living room - is visually very effective but it does tend to open out the already quite large stage of the Gala, which tends to distract somewhat from the intimacy which the play needs.

It is, I am told, selling very well and the audience quite clearly loved it: the applause at the end was loud and long, understandably because this is not a hard-hitting political piece which challenges (as it could well have been and as the publicity suggests) but a family drama which reassures.

Running until Saturday 28th April

Reviewer: Peter Lathan