'Port' or 'A town built on buried emotions. And cement.'
'Port', Simon Stephens
National Theatre (Lyttelton), Monday 4th March 2013
There is such a purity to Simon Stephens' writing; an innocent and romantic trill. This might be harder to spot in recent works, such as 'Three Kingdoms' or 'Wastwater', with their angry, cruel currents. But even when Stephens' plays are at their most vicious they are also honest and open, somehow clean in their dirty pursuits.
There's a whole lot of rage in Stephens' 'Port' - first performed 10 years ago - but there's also some phenomenal moments of tenderness. 'Port' has been labelled an 'epic' play but it actually feels pretty self-contained, both in terms of its subject and its setting. The location is Stockport and the subject is Rachael, who we see progress from a chattering and nervous 11 year old to a much more still, yet equally animated, woman of 24.
Kate O'Flynn brilliantly captures the contrasts that rumble within Racheal, who swaggers when she is sad and hides when she is happy. She is a girl who, over the decade or so that we see her, struggles to find someone to talk to. Friends and family in Stockport either ignore her, wilfully misunderstand her or struggle to relate. Rachael natters a lot but, other than a few heart to hearts with her one-time boyfriend Danny, she struggles to find conversation.
Stephens possesses perfect control of his dialogue. Seemingly mundane chats are lit up by perfectly timed emotional climaxes, which slip out so subtly that they barely feel like climaxes at all. Marianne Elliott 'conducts' these conversations brilliantly and the home-truths slide with a stealthy - oily - grace. Rage bubbles out of men so naturally, we wonder how we didn't spot it from the start. Resentment seeps out of the old and young. Loneliness hovers persistently beneath the surface.
The ugly stuff seeps out so easily in Stephens' Stockport but the good stuff - the love and vulnerability - stays buried deep. This idea is enhanced brilliantly by Lizzie Clachan's sinking set, which descends beneath the stage at the end of almost every scene. These people might be burying their emotions and their past but it's all still nestling there, right beneath their feet.
This relentless burying makes it all the more incredible when happiness - or the hope for happiness - wriggles free. When Racheal and Danny initially flirt together, their strong connection is captured in a flurry of 'mini-truths'; 'I love the smell of your hair'. When Danny pushes things further - 'Last night was the best night of my life' - Racheal hides behind a locker, unable to bear such emotion or at least feebly equipped to respond.
All the characters circle nervously around these moments of honesty. Racheal and her brother Billy finally confront their own truth in the play's final scene. Having spent a lifetime pretending to not miss their mother they admit their heartbreak at her departure. Racheal tells her brother; 'I do get you - and I love'. And then the sun rises. It is cheesy but so beautiful; as if all those ugly truths have been released and the good, bright, warm stuff can finally be released.