There has been a buzz in the theatre world about Blindsided ever since it was announced Simon Stephen’s latest play was to have its UK premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
Stockport born Stephens wowed audiences back in 2002 with Port and more recently scored critical acclaim with Punk Rock (2009). Those unfamiliar with his work have been drawn to this play for another reason – the casting of Julie Hesmondhalgh in her first role since viewers waved a fond farewell to her character Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street.
Whatever the reason for heading to the Royal Exchange on a cold winters night it was clear the packed out audience were full of high expectation and Blindsided had a lot to live up to.
The play takes us back to Stephen’s hometown of Reddish. It’s 1979, Thatcher has started to rule with a rod of iron and the future is as bleak as the concrete houses and corrugated iron bus shelters that adorn the streets. We meet Cathy (Katie West), an impressionable 17 year old single mum who is endearing but curiously unhinged and the last thing she needs in her life is to hook up with John (Andrew Sheridan) a cocky youth with a penchant for burgling houses. The pair embark on an intense but dysfunctional relationship whilst Cathy’s mother (Julie Hesmondhalgh) does her upmost to break it up, sensing there’s something not quite right about her daughters’ chosen man.
Unfortunately there’s something ‘not quite right’ about a lot of things in Blindsided.
It’s an uncomfortable play to watch and certainly not for the faint hearted. There’s an overly long sex scene (which, although cleverly directed by Sarah Frankcom, verges on gratuitous) and a shocking twist to the plot that makes you feel sick to the stomach.
There’s also disappointment from Hesmondhalgh who never really gets the opportunity to shine and shake off the shackles of Hayley, especially brandishing the strong Lancashire accent synonymous with the Cropper loving transgender.
On the flip side there’s some great acting to witness from West who is mesmerising as Cathy. West delivers Stephen’s dialogue with a freshness and vulnerability that often has the audience holding their breaths in anticipation of the depths her character will sink to. Sheridan also has a great presence and creates a chilling menacing bully as he plays mind games with the impressionable Cathy.
Rebecca Callard and Jack Deam don’t really have much stage time, which is a shame as both excel as Cathy’s aspirational best friend Siobhan and mild mannered next-door neighbour Isaac.
Anna Fleischle’s set befits the era with a sparse central concrete slab upon which the acting takes place. Fragmented, cold and minimal-it’s void of any props or piece of furniture for the actors to hide behind, which exposes them to the max.
Subtle rainfall punctuates the second half, circles the stage and forms an almost mirror-like moat around the action with the haunting classical music of Allegri enveloping the stand-out scene of this production – the rebirth of Cathy. This would have been a fitting end but sadly there is another fifteen minutes that follows which despite tying up loose ends, lacks the intensity of what has gone before.
Blindsided is certainly a powerful, thought provoking production that ticks many boxes but it slightly missed the target for me and also for the departing audience who just seemed a little confused at the end.
Blindsided runs at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 15th February 2014.