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Sons of York

James Graham
Finborough Theatre
(2008)

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Sons of York is undoubtedly one of the best new plays of the year. Set in 1978, some five years before the prodigious young James Graham was born, it joins the growing series of fine plays set in Hull, following works from John Godber and Richard Bean. Graham has already attracted plaudits for earlier works at the Finborough including Eden's Empire and Little Madam.

On the surface, this might seem like a gritty Northern family drama with comic touches. It is also an extended metaphor for its times, in a small way reminiscent of the rash of artistic offerings set in 1913 during an idyllic period before an even more deadly watershed than the arrival of the Iron Lady and her cohorts.

In an effort to cut costs and provide support as the Winter of Discontent hots up, if you'll pardon the phrase, Jim and Brenda along with 16-year-old Mark, move in to the West Hull two-up, two-down owned by Jim's parents. The dowdy living room where the action takes place has been lovingly created by Alex Marker, complete with suitably kitsch ornaments, Mantovani and Andy Williams records and a prehistoric video player.

The three generations prove an explosive combination, eventually literally. Old Dad Terry, played by William Maxwell is a hard line socialist who likes to get his own way, one of a dying breed. More literally on the way to meet her maker, his wife Val, beautifully portrayed by Colette Kelly, is practically catatonic, only rising from her chair for a couple of Dennis Potter song moments.

Barry Aird's Jim might be a truck driver but is the kind of wimp who would not risk breaking his teeth on a Yorkie, while his capable wife, made tough but sensitive by Kazia Pelka, is the kind of nurse who will do anything for her patients but does not always suffer their families gladly.

The best creation though, supremely well played by Steven Webb, is the constantly uncomfortable Mark, struggling not only with a post-pubertal identity crisis but also the charade that he has given up school for a factory job to please granddad.

This would-be punk is very bright and has a heart in the right place but struggles to come to terms with a claustrophobic situation, as "Nanna" fades before the family's eyes in time with the last old Labour government that any of us might ever see.

The early scenes take us back with unerring accuracy to a time of strikes and power cuts as Jim Callaghan desperately tries to hold on to power such that it is hard to believe that James Graham is not twice his own age.

The 2½ hour drama is then heightened as family feuds are fired up, building to a series of power struggles between Terry and Brenda, the second over a repeated Christmas dinner almost too realistic to watch, primarily because by that stage, you care so much about every member of this family.

As a portrait of a family and country in a state of flux, Sons of York is clearly supposed to evoke memories of Richard III, as well as more recent upheavals. It also has much to say to us today, as a weak Labour leader, voted in by his party rather than the country, limps towards his own final battle (or not?).

Playwright in Residence Graham mixes the political and personal with rare skill, aided by a fine cast, well directed by Kate Wasserberg.

This is a real triumph for the Finborough with a home-grown creative team each excelling. It would be wonderful for the theatre if an enterprising producer gave Sons of York the West End exposure that both the play and theatre so richly deserve.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher