Blindsided, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – review

In some ways Simon Stephens has become the Edward Bond de nos jours. Like Bond, Stephens writes dramas set in uncaring, uncompromising worlds, whose characters speak in a language at once naturalistic and yet artificially pared-down and whose uncertain attempts to assert their own identities sometimes lead to gratuitous and brutal acts of violence. His plays are usually (in the UK, at any rate) staged in a similarly spare style, and now and again (as with Three Kingdoms a couple of years ago) he seems more honoured in continental Europe than in his homeland. Stephens lacks the fierce ideology of Bond, although it is arguable that a deeper political point is indicated by his setting his latest play, Blindsided, in 1979 and 1997, on the eves of the Thatcher and Blair eras respectively.

In Stockport (Stephens’ home town), eccentric misfit teenager Cathy Heyer meets the manipulative John Connolly. The two embark on an affair which mixes passion, petty crime and psychological abuse. Cathy’s mother and a family friend (of whose 1930s German-Jewish childhood nothing at all is made) look on in impotent disapproval; Cathy’s best friend is drawn into bed with John. When Cathy discovers this, she embarks on a cold and brutal revenge, culminating in the murder of her (but not John’s) baby daughter simply to deprive him of a loved one. Eighteen years later Cathy, having served her time for murder and now living under a new identity, is tracked down by John’s son from a subsequent marriage. He speaks her old language of retribution while she seems wiser, even untouched by the events.

In the final scene of Sarah Frankcom’s production, young Harry Connolly is played by Andrew Sheridan who had previously portrayed John, and Cathy is now played by her former stage mother Julie Hesmondhalgh. In both roles, Hesmondhalgh makes Stephens’ words sound more flowing and organic than most of her colleagues, but this is a criticism neither of her nor of them: in earlier scenes, Sheridan and Katie West (as young Cathy) are enacting youthful self-consciousness writ large but not unnaturally so. And, as almost always, Stephens – unlike Bond – allows just a photon or two of hope to penetrate through a slit in the screen of bleakness.

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