There’s a striking moment, towards the end of this nostalgic, grit-flecked portrait of Stockport, when the concrete-clad surroundings perceptibly shift. Protagonist Rachael, back in her home town after several months away, remembers once gazing up at the clocktower as a soaring skyscraper, a local landmark of immense proportions that in adulthood has dwindled to a mere speck on a vast world. It’s a simple moment, but one that speaks to the shifting space in which we play out our lives, the contours that seem to move and blur as we grow older, the once huge monuments that now feel inconceivably small.
Geography – or more accurately psychogeography – is central to this story of growing up in Stockport, which announces its preoccupation with place in its very title. Rachael, who over the course of the play transforms from a gobbily precocious eleven-year-old to a bruised but optimistic woman of 24, fighting fiercely all the while to get out of the place that has spawned her, is trapped in a town populated with ghosts. First Rachael’s mother and then her grandfather make swift exits from her life, leaving behind traces in the frayed urban fabric. Past exists alongside present in a way that is reflected in the circumstances of this production, a revival of the play’s 2002 premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre headed by the same creative pairing of Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott, equally haunted by their own memories of the shared home town that shaped them.
While the naturalistically rendered environment of this nostalgia trip vividly conjures the bus stops, battered cars and hospital waiting rooms of Rachael’s world, the space of the Lyttelton stage is engaged in more than a simple one-way exchange with the piece. Between the play’s collection of snapshot scenes, Lizzie Clachan’s beautifully constructed designs conspicuously dismantle around the perceptive central character as she very deliberately looks on, participating in her own transformation at the same time as the space transforms with her. This is habitat as clothing, old haunts shrugged off like school jumpers; the landscape seismically shifting within the perspective of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through as she struggles with family crises and collapsing relationships. Light, from anaemic fluorescent tubes to a heart-catchingly hopeful sunrise, is more than just illumination – it is frustration and desire.
This eloquent dialogue with the content stretches from the way the production looks into the way it sounds. Just as the concrete pulses with the pop music of a decade that played to the soundtrack of The Stone Roses and Oasis, so the structure of the play as a whole jitters and jumps to an almost musical score. The pace, beginning at a frustratingly slow patter, speeds and slows across the eight distinct scenes, with occasional furious rises in pitch that rip through the rhythm of the drama; repeated themes – home, childhood, fear of death – loop back around in refrains, or perhaps more like tracks that keep returning on shuffle. The whole is sometimes frustrating, sometimes catchy, but with a chorus that climbs insistently into the ear.
Amid all this movement and sound, it’s hardly surprising that Rachael repeatedly refers to the world as “mental”, with the double implication of inconceivable, unjust madness and a psychological dimension to the version of Stockport that we are presented with through her experience. Rachael is a challenge and a gift of a role, a complex, wounded but resolutely optimistic figure, who in the hands of Katie O’Flynn is unceasingly engaging. So captivating is this central presence that the characters around her often feel lightly sketched, faded and drab alongside her vivid outline, barely less ghost-like than the gaping absences in Rachael’s life.
While the grim realities that Port portrays have not evaporated, the nostalgic tint of the production is a reminder that today’s world, more than a decade after Rachael’s closing look at her home town, is in many ways a very different place. There is a heavy sense of this particularly in the play’s build-up to the turn of the millennium, at which Rachael ponders whether this break represents a beginning or an end. Thirteen years later, as this production is inevitably refracted through subsequent events, it’s a question we still seem to be asking. Just as the play’s cyclical structure rewinds the track back to the beginning, we often end up in the same place we started in.