Port, Lyttelton Theatre, London

  • @EmilyJupp

Playwright Simon Stephens’ Port is arguably one of his most personal, not least because it is based where he, and the play’s director, Marianne Elliott, grew up. It was also written while his father was battling cancer, and themes of loss pervade the text.

First performed at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2002, and designed for a theatre in the round, Port, is adapted beautifully to fit in the Lyttleton, with realistic sets; from an old blue Ford with windows smashed in, to a greyish- green-tiled cafe in an NHS hospital, they anchor you - like Stephens' script - to the place. They could almost be film sets, apart from the dated sepia shades - like an old photo. This is Stockport, the place that “every c**t’s trying to get out” - but there’s an affection for it, too.

The story follows bright and bolshy Racheal Keats, played by Kate O’Flynn, through pivotal scenes in her life, each punctuated by tunes from Manchester’s thriving 90s music scene. Her first memory is of a dead sparrow, and this morbid fixation with death grows with time. Her mum abandons her and her brother Billy (played by Mike Noble, who is too cartoonish as a child, but as a teenager, makes a surprisingly sympathetic petty thief) and becomes one of a number of “ghosts” that haunt her nightmares. As Racheal grows up, she repeats some of her mother’s mistakes (Jack Deam plays both her drunk dad and abusive husband, making an overt parallel) in an unconscious attempt to understand her abandonment, while trying to maintain a chipper disposition throughout.

Sometimes lyrical, Stephens’ language never loses its dark realism, as the audience is constantly reminded of the contrast with their comparatively salubrious lives. The smell of cigarettes and perfume sit damply in the background, while Kevin, Racheal’s husband sips a “tinny” and mocks country pubs and with it the audience’s lives; “full of bald blokes drinking real ales,” and they don’t serve proper drinks like Jack Daniels, he complains.

O’Flynn ends each scene gazing hopefully up to the light source, whether it’s a dim backroom halogen, or a warming sunrise. Skipping from foot to foot as a cheeky youngster and again as a nervous teenager, “it was alright” is her upbeat catchphrase, even when things are clearly not alright. Her transition from plucky mouth-breathing schoolgirl with a pouty overbite to a responsible adult is fluid less convincing; Stephens’ lines giving her and other characters idiosyncratic wit and depth.

Even Racheal’s teenage lover, whose main interests include sex and crime, turns mundane Stockport life into an impromptu rap by a dirty bus stop: “go out... go on buses, go cinema, get up to all sorts.” You’re left feeling that you know the place, and love the characters, even if you’ve never even been north of the M25.