I’m the kind of girl everyone thinks will just be alright.
Simon Stephens’ Port premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2002, with Marianne Elliot directing. The two, both from Stockport where this play is set, have teamed up again for this revival at the National Theatre, which features a bravura central performance from Kate O’Flynn as Racheal, the plucky intelligent child of a broken home whose life we follow from the ages of eleven to twenty-four.
When we first meet Racheal, she’s sitting outside in the family car with her mother and younger brother, Billy, looking up at the window of their flat. Her father, who’s gone a bit ‘mental’, has locked them out. Racheal tries to alleviate the awkwardness of their situation with incessant chatter, asking her increasingly exasperated mother question after question. O’Flynn’s Racheal is full of appropriately childish energy, fighting with her brother and trying desperately to keep her mother close even as she senses she is perhaps slipping away.
And indeed, that is exactly what happens. Yet this is just the first of many blows that Stephens deals Racheal; still to come are the death of a family member, her brother’s incarceration in a juvenile detention centre, an unhappy marriage in which she’s the victim of domestic abuse, and the loss of her one true love. At times Stephens veers dangerously close to cliché in his portrait of northern working-class youth, which could be used as a test case for aspiring social workers (almost every problem one could imagine having to deal with is here), and one or two of the scenes feel bloated, but in the end Stephens is saved by his ear for dialogue and the strong performances of his cast.
O’Flynn is on stage throughout, her costume changes signalling her advance through adolescence. She has teenage swagger when trying to impress a boy, and tender hesitation when declaring her love for another. She’s an endearing mixture of hope, strength and desperation, poignantly expressed when on the phone to her brother on the eve of the new Millenium: she’s just been attacked by her husband who believes she’s cheating (she’s not) and she clearly wants to break down and be comforted, and yet she knows that she must stay strong because her wayward brother looks up to her. You believe in O’Flynn’s Racheal, and you root for her desperately. When she talks of hopes and dreams that never happen, in a rare moment of stillness as she realises she can never be with the boy she loves, you feel her pain, but you also trust that one day she will manage to leave drab, hopeless Stockport behind.
O’Flynn is ably supported by Mike Noble as her younger brother Billy, who is asked to play both a truculent 6-year-old and a tearaway teenager involved in theft and drugs, by Calum Callaghan, quiet and tender as the boy-that-got-away, and Jack Deam, brilliantly ominous and repellent as the two abusive men in her life – her father and her husband.
Lizzie Clachan’s design is a marvel, her various sets often rising from beneath the stage. In various shades of grey accompanied by neon lighting she presents us with a hospital café, a bus stop, a supermarket workers’ locker room and a pub garden – grim locations where grim events take place. We are even treated to rain-streaked windows, further adding to the gloom and the image of Stockport as a monochrome hell. Scene changes are cleverly accompanied by thumping 1990s Manchester indie rock. Some have questioned the decision to stage Port at the large Lyttelton theatre, but I think the cavernous space works well, creating looming shadows and a sense of a people overcome by the space where they find themselves.
Only Racheal manages to escape – or so we believe (and hope); the prospect of a new life is signalled by the rising sun in the closing scene. As the light warms her face, she smiles to herself, dreaming of a future she can almost taste. Stephens has created a beautifully believable complex, wounded, resilient girl in Racheal, and O’Flynn brings her movingly to life.