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Our Friends in the North, on stage

March 15th, 2008 (10:06 pm)

To the Oxford Playhouse with gervase_fen to see Our Friends in the North. This is a revival, by Newcastle theatre company Northern Stage, of Peter Flannery's 1982 RSC play, later expanded to make the nine-part BBC drama series, which didn't appear until 1996. For this version Flannery has revised the text of the play to apply a little hindsight, necessary when dealing with a play which still aims to be contemporary history rather than just a document of turn-of-the-80s attitudes towards the recent past, and also to bring some character names in line with those used in the BBC version. However, the temptation to extend the play's chronological narrative has been rejected (unsurprisingly, given that the play is three-and-a-half hours long) and so it still ends in 1979. It is still a perceptive commentary n the mores of post-war Britain and the failure of British society to meet the challenges it set itself.

If the lead character of the 'friends' on television was Nicky, played on BBC 2 by Christopher Eccleston (identified as such by the opening narration) here it is Geordie, embodied by Daniel Craig on television, but here by Craig Conway, the only actor not to double or triple up. There is some satisfaction in seeing Geordie here gun down those who betrayed him and his girlfriend Ruth/Rusty (a tart with a heart whom we see slowly eviscerated), but it leaves him with nowhere to go beyond a home which no longer exists. In the original stage version I think Geordie committed himself to revolution at the end, a working class rising which many intellectuals in early 80s Britain expected. On television this subplot was projected back into the early 1970s, the age of the Angry Brigade, and given to Nicky. In this version of the play, after characters have either renounced their dreams, embraced Thatcherite individualism, or become lost in self-delusion - Austin Donohue, the local politician and PR man inspired by T. Dan Smith, who believes that he was 'temporarily guilty' of corruption - Geordie, who has lost Ruth to heroin, puts his gun to his own head, and we leave him in indecision. The stage goes dark, and D-Ream's 'Things can only get better', Labour's 1997 election campaign song, plays out. Excellent performances from a cast from whom much is demanded, a welcome chance to see the Rhodesian sub-plot lost from the television version (and therefore flattening the play's title, as to the South African government, Ian Smith's Rhodesian government was 'Our Friends in the North') and a touching set of bookends involving self-important local politician Bede Connor, a Rover car, a bicycle, three men, and an honest policeman.