History isn’t history when it happens. It catches us unawares. Dramatists often forget that and, in seeking narrative tension, twist proceedings into portents. (Evidence? Anything aboard Titanic. Iceberg: two acts ahead, sir.)
Not so Luke Barnes. By the time you realise where Bottleneck is heading, it’s already too late. You’re in the thick of it. An all-too-familiar scar becomes lived experience: unexpected, confused and panic-stricken. For the most part, however, it’s just another day. Just another football match. Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest.
There’s no mention of the stadium, nor that this is FA Cup semi-final day. Bottleneck doesn’t even dwell on its decade. You presume it’s 2013. Austerity is in the air. No one trusts the police. However, something niggles and gradually – impeccably – Barnes lets the time frame dawn. Paedophiles are the bogeymen du jour; John Barnes the Liverpool hero; Candy still the club’s sponsor. It is 1989.
Two days before his 15th birthday, Scouse runaround Greg is tearing through his neighbourhood – Slag’s Corner, he calls it – skipping round smackheads and dodging “busies”. He’s crude, destructive and full-on, but ultimately too naive really to threaten. James Cooney plays him like a firework let off indoors, ricocheting off the walls.
Then suddenly, you’re there: in the middle of the Hillsborough disaster, now alive with terror. It pops with vivid, expressionist details of the crowd crush that saw 96 people die – fingernails dug into skin, tears squeezed from their ducts – and Steven Atkinson’s production, so scattergun to start with, finds a still, taut dignity. In the middle of the melee, a birthday boy comes of age in an instant.
I had wondered whether HighTide’s production, a success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, would hold up to a second viewing, disarmed of its big reveal. In fact, it gains from it. Barnes’s writing wears the era’s politics lightly. Greg’s teenage perspective can’t grasp the implications of unions and “mollyesters”. Instead, he’s fixated by the trappings of adulthood: moustaches and muscles and red-soaked bits of wool on toilet floors. What counts as growing up, Barnes asks, and is it as active as all that?
However, it’s the final moment, when Greg holds up a Liverpool scarf, that really hits home. “You’ll never walk alone,” it says; testimony that, contrary to what Margaret Thatcher said, there is such a thing as society after all.