After her bold choice of Dennis Potter's Son of Man to relaunch Newcastle Playhouse as Northern Stage a year ago, its chief executive Erica Whyman has uncovered another piece well worth reviving.
Our Friends in the North enjoyed a high profile in a gripping TV dramatisation in the mid-1990s, but it is to its darker theatrical origins that Whyman has turned for this first staging of Peter Flannery's enthralling play since its RSC premiere in the early 1980s.
What is most striking – apart from how multi-dimensional this live theatre production seems in comparison with the televised version – is how depressingly little seems to have changed over the years. Substitute institutionalised corruption with institutionalised racism, cash for honours with cash for questions, insufficient affordable housing with shoddy tower blocks, and oil-fuelled war with, well, oil-fuelled war, and the play's issues remain horribly relevant.
Abuse of power, sleaze and spin are interwoven, along with a whole chunk of plot devoted to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This latter aspect of the play, drastically cut from the television series, adds a welcome, wider perspective to the drama's North-East and London polarity.
It was never going to be easy for the four actors faced with stepping into the shoes of television's quartet of Tyneside friends. Craig Conway is a wryly tough Geordie, his part interestingly fleshed out in the Rhodesian angle, and Sonia Beinroth is a sparky, vulnerable Rusty, her drug-addicted hooker providing sharp contrast to the domestic role of Mary, which she also plays.
Darren Tunstall, the good cop foiled in his efforts to nail corruption within the Met, is also excellent, while Neil Phillips makes an incorrigible Donohue, the PR man who even manages to convince himself that he was only "temporarily" guilty of corruption.
With 14 actors tackling nearly 40 roles in 46 scenes, you might expect a few weak links. But there are scarcely any. The plot and characterisation are helped by the clarity of Whyman's economic direction and Flannery's vivid narrative. Speedy scene-shifts and smart quick-changes are an essential component.
Soutra Gilmour's strikingly simple set of container-like black boxes, with its revolving base and sliding doors, works surprisingly well. An interior wall reveals a glimpse of wallpaper, a pink neon light suggests a strip joint, a psychedelic dress establishes the swinging Sixties and a few utilitarian chairs represent a police station, while the Rhodesia scenes are distinguished by warmer lighting and chirruping crickets.
At nearly four hours long, Our Friends in the North represents theatre of epic proportions, skilfully presented within the necessarily compressed timescale. Time flashes before our eyes, key years projected onto the side of the set. Despite the sometimes sprawling storyline, the need to keep up with who's playing whom, it's a compelling evening. Given the occasional impenetrability of the accents, however, I felt a smidgeon of sympathy for the Southerner who mistook Conway's Geordie for a Pakistani.
Flannery has provided a new ending, changing the order of a few of the closing scenes and bringing the play full circle by including a final encounter between the three lads, now grown men, and the arrogant Newcastle councillor who got away with crushing their bike years earlier.
D:Ream's evocative "Things Can Only Get Better" accompanies the final moments, just before Thatcher enters Downing Street. It would be 18 years before that song was adopted by the Labour Party for the 1997 General Election to reflect nothing less than the urgent need for change.
To 20 October (0191-230 5151), then touringReuse content