Our Friends in the North

Peter Flannery
Northern Stage production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Production photo

A play concerning bribery and corruption in the North East rang a few distant bells, which began to clang loudly when the name T. Dan Smith was mentioned. Wasn’t he the man who, in the seventies, went to prison for six years for his part in awarding contracts (for money) to a firm which used inferior cement, causing water to constantly seep through the walls of newly constructed high rise apartment buildings and one tower block actually collapsed soon after completion? Smith had a vision of Newcastle as “a city free and beautiful .a Brazilia of the North” but his dream was curtailed by the scandal of conspiracy and corruption. Interestingly, after a lull in the wake of the scandal, Newcastle is indeed becoming vibrant and exciting with new housing, shopping centres, and theatres and art galleries in abundance – a cultural and leisure centre to replace the doomed ship building industry.

The play, it is stressed, is fiction, but shockingly this is truth dressed up as fiction, taking in corruption in every walk of life, and travelling from the North East to London and thence to Rhodesia where, around the same time period, the injustice and humiliation of the apartheid system was causing unrest which led to the Bush War and the eventual creation of Zimbabwe. The pursuit of power is obvious everywhere and even the victims of a shoddy housing debacle are not above accepting a three bedroomed house in exchange for keeping their mouths shut instead of suing the perpetrators, and really, can you blame them! The only character who shines like a beacon in a shady world is policeman Roy Johnson who fights hard against the odds to uphold the law, even taking on the case of police dishonesty and brutality in the seventies – something which was brought home to us in the intriguing series Life on Mars recently seen on television.

The story follows the lives of three young men – Tosker, Nicky and Geordie – beginning with a ruined bicycle and a councillor who thought he was above the law, it finally comes full circle with the same man finding he is not so invincible after all.

Tosker and his wife and baby just want a home which doesn’t leak, and idealist Nicky becomes a staunch member of the Labour Party to the disgust of his disillusioned father – reminding me very much of my grandfather whose words “This is not what we were fighting for” voiced his own disenchantment. Geordie travels to London to find work and gets mixed up in a life of crime – drug dealing, prostitution and pornography. He also discovers the brutality and arrogance of a coercive police force which also thought it was above the law, his brush with violence leading him to become a mercenary in Rhodesia. This brings in not only the arrogance and insensitivity of the white ruling class, but also the devious way the British managed to side-step the oil embargo in place at the time.

Soutra Gilmour‘s set is simply an enormous black box with doors, shutters, mesh screens and a couple of ladders and this becomes what you will, with scene changes expertly and intricately choreographed, and swiftly and slickly performed - although these changes are rather too many and too frequent. Towards the end of the almost four hour show I was beginning to think, “Oh, leave the furniture where it is and get on with the story”.

It is a very long show – perhaps a little too long - but that aside, Erica Whyman has directed a stunningly compelling production, totally engrossing and superbly performed by a cast of fourteen who take on forty three parts, switching characters, accents and costumes at the drop of a hat. Unfair to mention any names – they were all superb, each character totally credible.

Although the play inspired a television series, which concentrated more on the relationships than the political aspect, this is the first revival of the stage version for twenty five years. “Nothing seems to change,” says Nick towards the end – sadly only too true!

Peter Lathan reviewed the original production (with a slightly different cast) at Northern Stage and David Chadderton saw this touring version at The Lowry, Salford.

Guildford was the final stop on the tour.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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