40 Years On, Life on the Dole

“For once in your life, fight back…” 


Cast (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Boys from the Blackstuff was the sequel written by Alan Bleasdale for the BBC in 1982 after the success of his play for television The Blackstuff which described an investment to provide them with work which they lost in Middlesborough.  Five tarmac layers, tarmac being the blackstuff, are reunited in the employment exchange signing on for unemployment benefit.  This is in Liverpool and Margaret Thatcher (Milk Snatcher)’s government has been in charge for three years. 

James Graham has written this adaptation for the stage.  Director Kate Wasserberg arranged for Alan Bleasdale to meet James Graham who has said, “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, or what we were going to do. But like trying to get pandas to mate in the zoo, she brought us together at a Chinese restaurant on the Liverpool docks.”

The play opened in Liverpool’s Royal Court and now comes to the National Theatre’s Olivier for three weeks before opening at the Garrick Theatre on 13th June 2024.  This tale is set in recession ridden Britain, especially in Northern cities like Liverpool, which didn’t have the newly wealthy yuppies and where the dockyard jobs were hit because the River Mersey was too shallow for container ships.

Aron Julius as Loggo and George Caple as Snowy (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The one actor we all remember was Bernard Hill as Yosser Hughes, who lost his job, lost his wife and Social Services was threatening to take his children into care.  His catch phrases “Gissus a job.  Go on” and “I can do that!”  when faced with people in work, were memorable.  Yosser’s mental health is crumbling and he is on the edge of desperation. 

So too in the play at the Olivier, it is Barry Sloane as Yosser who grabs our attention and takes our hearts, even though we do not see his three children who need their hair brushing and to eat something other than sharing a bag of chips.  Chrissie (Nathan McMullen) and his wife Angie (Lauren O’Neil) are finding their marriage difficult and the “sniffers” are calling at their door. 

Nathan McMullen as Chrissie, Philip Whitchurch as George and Aron Julius as Loggo. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The ”sniffers” are from the Department of Employment, the investigators looking into benefit fraud.  Much of the humour in Boys from the Blackstuff comes from the antics of the sniffers in trying to catch men working illegally at pittance wages for Molloy (Dominic Carter) a local property developer.

The difficulty is the vast expanse of the Olivier stage when trying for an intimacy to get to know the five men.  Amy Jane Cook’s docklands set is vast with rusted iron girders and twin cranes stretching out to each other, corrugated iron sides and to the rear, a projection screen for views of the Mersey.  Toxteth, or Liverpool 8 is what the area was known as. 

The scenes in the Employment Exchange are set in numbered cubicles with the unemployed individuals below and the Employment clerks above but this looks more like the starting blocks for a horse race than the claustrophobic and hopeless search for work. The numbers do convey the loss of identity in this government department where in Liverpool there are 2,000 jobs for 96,000 unemployed.  Dixie (Mark Womack) attributes Liverpool’s difficulties to the city “facing the wrong way” for European trade.   

Cast. (photo: Alastair Muir)

The scenes at night are beautifully lit as we see the wooden crates moved around with each showing an illuminated grid maybe illustrating the value of the goods inside. This scene takes place in Dixie Dean’s warehouse job where he faces a moral decision where doing the right thing would see him losing his employment. Jamie Jenkin’s projections give views of the rooftops, famous Liverpudlian buildings, dockyard scenes and often the River Mersey. 

The performances are strong.  The experience of unemployment is emasculating and Barry Sloane makes an immense impact as Yosser’s sanity disintegrates.  The loss of George Malone (Philip Whitchurch)’s boy Snowy, the craftsman plasterer in an industrial accident while working without a contract  and trying to escape from the investigators, really hurts. Philip Whitchurch as George Malone has an active trade union past, is an ex docker, and is solid support for the group.  I liked too Aron Julius as idiosyncratic Loggo and his experience of fishing in the Shetlands. 

It is hard to believe that Boys from the Blackstuff was first made 40 years ago.

Barry Sloane as Yosser Hughes. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Production Notes

Boys from the Blackstuff

Written  by Alan Bleasdale

Adapted by James Graham

Directed by Kate Wasserberg


Aron Julius

Barry Sloane

George Caple

Helen Carter

Lauren O’Neil

Mark Womack

Nathan McMullen

Dominic Carter

Philip Whitchurch

Jamie Peacock


Director:  Kate Wasserberg

Designer: Amy Jane Cook

Lighting Designer: Ian Scott

Video/Projection: Jamie Jenkin

Composer and Sound Designer: Dyfan Jones

Movement: Rachael Nanyonjo

Fight Director: Rachel Bown Williams


Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes including an interval

Booking at the National to 8th June 2024

Then at the Garrick Theatre 13th June until 3rd August 2024




Olivier Theatre

National Theatre

South Bank

London SE1 9PX

Tube/Rail : Waterloo

Website: nationaltheatre.org.uk

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Olivier Theatre

on 30th May 2024

Cast from the BBC serial. (Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty)