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Blindsided, Royal Exchange Theatre, Reviewed

Joan Davies finds a play saved by acting rather than writing

Written by . Published on February 4th 2014.


Blindsided, Royal Exchange Theatre, Reviewed
 

PLAYWRIGHT Simon Stephens has had more plays produced at the Royal Exchange than any other living UK playwright.

Blindsided, the fourth, set like the others in his home town of Stockport, opens with Julie Hesmondhalgh, fresh from her dramatic and moving departure from Coronation Street, in a key role. A Stockport-born writer and a popular Corrie actor creates interest, and the auditorium is full, even on the usually flat night after Press Night. 

The writer may have intended to link the political with the personal, but very few opportunities are taken to examine this.

The story starts in 1979 and moves to 1997, not to provide a numerical trick, but to set the story in years of key change in Britain’s perception of itself: we elected Maggie’s party to power in 79 and Blair’s in 97. They seem like different worlds, even with hindsight. 

Blindsided focuses on standard relationships: mothers and daughters, grandmothers, the family friend, boyfriend and girlfriend, but the individuals are all damaged in some way, and their relationships, governed by concern for self, jar and fracture, eventually with horrendous consequences. 

Cathy, a teenage mother studying for one ‘A’ level in History, meets, falls for and plans to marry John Connolly. His betrayal of their relationship prompts a horrendous retribution from Cathy. Eighteen years later Connolly’s son learns the truth and seeks out Cathy and there are glimpses of redemption, even forgiveness? 

Designer Anna Fleischle’s set is stark, with the concrete and girders of a grim estate. Sarah Frankcom’s direction opens with a cracking pace suiting the initial sharp dialogue as two young people test the water. Later the still, rigid arms stance of the actors reflects their inability to share, but is puzzlingly unnatural at times. It requires some serious acting skills. 

The acting is the main strength

 

The acting is the main strength

 

And it is the acting which is the main strength of the production. Julie Hesmondhalgh is stronger in her final role as 97 Cathy conveying a warmth and an empathy that had been intentionally absent from both 79 Cathy, played by Katie West, and her 79 mother, Hesmondhalgh again.

That the change is left unexplained is one of the problems of the play. Katie West is superb, even with her arms so often glued to her sides. I’m not a fan of the arm gesture school of acting, but this stillness is unsettling. Perhaps that’s the point. 

The male characters are well-portrayed by Jack Deam and Andrew Sheridan. They’re written to be more easily understood, though both are a little enigmatic. Not in a good way. Rebecca Callard, in her fourth appearance at the Exchange, is superb, as we’ve come to expect.

There are strengths in this production, weaknesses too.

Direction, set, sound and lighting all reinforce the disconnected and jarring aspects of these individuals’ lives. Cathy and John’s sex scene, performed with the actors physically apart, reinforces the insularity of the characters, but is overlong and over-voyeuristic.

Cathy’s passion for history is believable, and hints at deeper questions of how our past determines our present and future. The purification scene is mesmeric but not convincing without strong religious belief, and even then must be a stretch. A belief in the power of hope and the possibility of redemption and forgiveness is a strong undercurrent in our society, but it’s usually at the end of a thorough process of self-examination, and we’re given no real insight into this. 

The writer may have intended to link the political with the personal, but very few opportunities are taken to examine this. Rather a few political mantras are uttered by assorted characters and then disappear, without debate or consequence.

Stephens is regarded as a writer for whom place is crucial, but I don’t recognise these characters as particularly Stockport, Manchester or northern characters. The character traits and most of their actions are present everywhere; the crucial action is extreme, rare, and equally not location dependent. 

The fine performances rather than the uneven writing make this a play worth seeing.

Blindsided is at The Royal Exchange until Saturday 15 February 2014

If you’d like a little light shed on the ideas behind the production the theatre is running three different events, listed below, which might help. 

A panel discussion with playwright Simon Stephens alongside leading theatre professionals and academics from the University of Manchester. Saturday 1 February: 1pm - 2.30pm

A pre-show, talk-based introduction to the play and production. Join members of the creative team as they discuss and demonstrate the process of bringing the production to the stage. Tuesday 4 February, 10am-noon.

After-show discussion with writer Simon Stephens and director Sarah Frankcom: Thursday 13  February after 7.30pm performance.

Call the box office on 0161 833 9833

Pictures here by Kevin Cummins.

BlindsidedBlindsided

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sawyFebruary 5th 2014.

In my opinion it was total rubbish.Some people walked out and a few did not return after the break .

Frank NoonFebruary 6th 2014.

I went last night and have to say it was the biggest pile of cliché-ridden junk I have ever seen. It was nearly saved by the superb acting of all the cast, but even this could not save the play from the grips of the writings of a tormented adolescent with an E grade at sociology O level.

DigsterFebruary 6th 2014.

I've been visiting the Royal Exchange for many years now have seen countless productions.  Some I have enjoyed more than others, that's always the way however, this was absolutely terrible.  I am far from a prude but the endless swearing and the gratuitous sex scenes were really not needed.  They just seemed to be there to try and keep your attention going.  What on earth was going on with the bit where the character laid down in the water was anybody's guess!  I have to agree with Sawy, never have I watched a production where so many people did not come back from the break - which is a shame as it must have been disheartening to the actors.

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