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Our Friends in the North

Nicola Mostyn talks to Northern Stage director Erica Whyman about this timely revival of Peter Flannery’s drama

Published on March 17th 2008.

Our Friends in the North

Most people will associate Our Friends in the North with the 1996 BBC 2 Drama series starring Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig, which told of four friends from Newcastle dealing with the personal and the political over four decades from the 1960s to the 1990s.

But the drama, which garnered huge critical acclaim and won a BAFTA, was actually adapted by writer Peter Flannery from his original stage play, written in 1982 whilst Flannery was working at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This early play followed the characters only up until the 1979 general election, when the Conservatives came to power under Thatcher, and it is this play which Newcastle based company Northern Stage are currently touring around the UK.

Our Friends in the North tells a story of corruption and power and takes in the Houses of Commons, the banks of the Tyne, Scotland Yard and a Soho porn shop, dealing with sweeping issues from the selling of oil and police bribery to inadequate social housing and the defeat of left wing idealism.

It is now 25-years-old, so why decide to revisit it?

“The most important reason,” says Northern Stage director Erica Whyman, “was that it felt unbelievably relevant in a way that it hasn’t been over the past ten years. After the Labour victory I don’t think people were keen to criticise the government but it seems now that we are entering a whole new phase, people feel very differently about the Labour government and the play is suddenly relevant again.”

As well as regaining its political resonance due to the shift in the political climate, the play also focuses on the international factors, present in the original script, which the drama series omitted: “There wasn’t any mention of the Rhodesian conflict in the TV series, which is a huge strand in the play,” says Erica. “At the time the TV series went out, Mugabe had just been elected and he was one of the great hopes for new black Africa. Of course, that has gone heartbreakingly wrong since then.”

On the personal level, the play also touches on social and aspirational factors which have not yet disappeared in the UK, as Erica found when the play ran in Newcastle in November last year. “There were people who were too young to remember the TV series coming up afterwards and saying ‘That is me!’ because Geordie’s story, especially, touches on the idea that people feel that they need to leave the north to make something of themselves. So it’s a very human story.”

Though covering fewer years than the 31 of the TV series, this is still a sprawling beast of a play. “Our Friends in the North is a play of statistics,” says the director. “It spans 17 years, we have 14 performers, playing 44 characters in 42 scenes.” That must be a challenge to direct? “It’s a huge challenge for the cast who have to play all these different characters!” she says.

So what will people who watched the TV drama make of the original play, which doesn’t get near the 90s? “They’ll probably be relieved!” the director laughs, referring to the play’s already long running time. But, she adds, with so many scenes and characters, people leave the theatre with no idea how late it is.

And as a director did she find the need to change the way the play was presented a quarter of a century on? “We’ve hardly changed anything,” she says. “We’ve added a prologue, which is more theatrical. We try to give people a clear insight into what they’re getting. Where the TV series focused on the relationships, this play has a very strong political message, they’re going to see a tough political play. Also, there has never been the right amount of Geordies in it before. There are eleven Geordie characters in this play and they all played by actors from the North East, so there’s a real authenticity about it.”

It is also a great return for Northern Stage, whose home theatre was closed for two and a half years and reopened 18 months ago. “It was an enormous redevelopment. We now have a huge public space, new dressing rooms, a restaurant and three stages. It’s a big complex now, like a miniature National Theatre. And we just feel like we are starting to gain our audience back. So touring Our Friends in The North has put us back on the map – it’s a key piece in taking the North East out of the North East.”

Our Friends in the North, The Lowry, Tue 18 Mar - Sat 22 Mar £18 - £20

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