When it was announced that acclaimed young director Matthew Dunster was to adapt and direct Allan Sillitoe’s groundbreaking novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at the Royal Exchange you knew it was going to be a bit special.Dunster has a talent for creating productions that are gritty and Northern, possibly due to his own Oldham-born roots, so it seemed fitting he should take on one of the most iconic kitchen-sink dramas.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is set in 1950s Nottingham and centres on rebellious young factory worker Arthur Seaton who works hard and plays dirty. He has reasons to fight, reasons to drink and several girls on the go. Arthur’s motto is ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down’ but as the play evolves we start to wonder if Arthur is in fact the true ‘bastard’ of the piece.
Perry Fitzpatrick (This is England) plays the anti-hero with a lanky swagger and a big teddyboy quiff. A challenging role for any male actor it had Fitzpatrick onstage throughout delivering some epic monologues. It may have took the first fifteen minutes for him to get into his stride as Seaton but by the second half Fitzpatrick was steaming ahead, showing a cheekiness and charm the audience were aching to see him display.
There are some great performances put in by Clare Calbraith as (one of) Arthur’s married lovers, Brenda. Calbraith gives a moving portrayal of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, wanting fun but having to face serious consequences. Her ‘DIY’ abortion is particularly hard to watch for its realism and her vulnerability (shown both through her full nudity onstage and the strong use of silences).
A light relief is offered in the guise of Leigh McDonald as Aunt Ada and Jo Hartley as Emler, the pair providing ample laughs for their charming portrayal of typical 1950’s Northern women.
Full marks must go to designer Anna Fleischle for an absolutely incredible set design. Fleischle is continually inventive throughout the play, and excels in using some fantastic devices including: an over head mechanical clothes rail used to ferry in a variety of things from suits (as a wardrobe), to bike parts (to represent the Raleigh factory), to plastic skeletons (for a ghost train)! The one criticism might be that the set design is so captivating that in parts it does detract from the action on stage as you are left wondering ‘what will change to the set next?’
In a nutshell Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a funny, heart-rending, and brutally honest portrait of working class manhood. It offers a terrifying glimpse into an age where work, booze and death were all that Britain's young men had to look forward to. It certainly makes you leave the theatre glad that we have moved on from that era and, despite the current climate we live in, thankful for your lot!
The Royal Exchange Theatre
St Ann’s Square, Manchester
Thursday 1 March – Saturday 7 April
Box Office: 0161 833 9833