Shortly after his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time opened to acclaim at the National Theatre last summer (it transfers to the West End in March), Simon Stephens tweeted that that was likely to be as much “crowd-pleasing” as he would do for some time. This next production is not elegant entertainment even of a Haddonite kind. Nor, however, is it in the vein of Stephens’ preferred recent mode of working, with a more opaque script that is then further deconstructed by a director such as Switzerland-based Sebastian Nübling, whom he admires immensely. No, this is what you might call classic Simon Stephens … to the extent of being a revival of a play he wrote a decade ago.
Marianne Elliott not only directed The Curious Incident … and the 2002 Manchester premiere of Port, but also Stephens’ 2008 National offering Harper Regan; she has both experience and sensitivity to material of this kind. As Harper Regan followed a fortyish woman on her journey across England to a family-related goal that symbolised for her something greater but unspecific, so Port’s eight scenes portray discrete moments in the life of Racheal Keats, who ages from 11 to 24 between 1988 and 2002, and to a lesser extent her five-years-younger brother Billy; the “port” in question is Stephens’ (and Elliott’s) native Stockport, near Manchester. As so often, Stephens shows us a succession of little breaking points in undistinguished lives, yet at the end reveals a tiny kernel of indomitability.
Kate O’Flynn gives a terrific performance as Racheal through family break-up, financial crisis, romantic disappointment and marital strife to an uncertain kind of near-maturity. I had worried in the first scene, when the National audience gave one of the biggest laughs to a mother smacking her young son’s face, that this might be patronisingly misunderstood as northern exotica; however, O’Flynn and her seven acting colleagues strike a fine balance between occasional laughter, discomfort and even an exquisite emotional agony.
Similarly, Lizzie Clachan’s designs at first seem to leave the characters (most scenes are duologues or occasionally trios) adrift on the broad Lyttelton stage, but gradually we see that this is the point: they are indeed so much smaller, but adrift? No. Rather, still heading doggedly into port.