Monday, 30 January 2017

Review Years of Sunlight (Preview)

Years of Sunlight
by Michael McLean

The Likely Lads

One of TLT's relatives once  worked in Port Sunlight, a factory and a model village providing comfortable housing for its workers in Cheshire, near to Liverpool, built late in the 19th century. This parallelled similar Victorian projects such as Cadbury's Bournville and the much earlier New Lanark in Scotland.

In a sense, this part of the TLT clan was going backward in time. For before Port Sunlight, he and his new wife  had first moved into a maisonette near London in one of the many New Towns, part of a post Second World War attempt for a planned welfare state, set up not by a company but by national and local government.

So it was with her curiosity piqued, TLT parked her thespian jalopy at the Theatre503 for a preview performance of Years of Sunlight. This is set not in Port Sunlight,  but a post World War II overspill Lancashire new town for Liverpool workers, namely Skelmersdale.

The play charts the lives of friends over 30 years until 2010: Paul (Mark Rice-Oxley), the child of an Irish  single mother Hazel (Miranda Foster) conceived in Ireland, and artistically talented Emlyn (Bryan Dick).

Emlyn lives in a children's home before being fostered on the same estate where Hazel, who watches out for him, and Paul live. Both Paul and Emlyn are children, we learn eventually, of the New Town and both have a chance of upward mobility, skewed in various ways.

The play itself works its way backwards in time and, despite this structure, feels much like a soap opera. However  writer Michael McLean intelligently works in a more explicit entertainment and pre-Murdoch newspaper industry theme.

Paul's golf-playing printer stepfather Bob (memorable John Biggins), ultimately hobbled in a fate reflecting his earlier charitable activities, could equally have stepped out of as a boss in a 1950s' 'angry young man' novel or a Dickens' tale..

In addition, threaded alongside this, as far as we could tell, there is a subtle subtext drawing in the impact of arts'  funding  on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Seared Productions in association with the Theatre503 presents Years of Sunlight. The drama is directed skilfully by Amelia Sears with great clarity, aided by Polly Sullivan's deft, clever design. A granite pillar, a raised platform at an angle on the stage has cloud-like painterly daubs on either side. Video news projections reflect the changes over years, real-life and artistic fracturing.

This is a modest, rewarding play, a little schematic at times, but with plenty of potential - we did feel it might have another life on screen. The 75-minute, one-act drama has an outstanding performance by Bryan Dick as Emlyn with strong performances also from Mark Rice-Oxley and Miranda Foster.

At the same time, without wanting to give anything away, the new town theme did not always feel organically knitted in. So it lacked the final  lump-in-the-throat poignancy and feel of lost promise for which it was clearly striving in the preview we saw.

At its best Years of Sunlight reflects in its story the sly ambivalence found in contemporary narration of genuine 1960s' Skelmersdale Development Corporation film footage, shown in the play, promoting the brave new world. It's an  amber/green light for a tale of good intentions and sad outcomes.

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