At a time when political disillusionment among the country’s young people is running high, it seems an appropriate time for the Royal Exchange to revisit Alan Sillitoe’s powerful portrait of a volatile, cynical and embittered ‘angry young man,’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
The potency of Sillitoe’s creation and its influence on post-war British culture cannot be underestimated. His work – and the resultant 1960 film adaptation directed by Karel Reisz and starring a young Albert Finney – has made fans of Morrissey and Alex Turner (the latter even naming Arctic Monkeys’ debut album after a line in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning), and it’s possible to see Shane Meadows as his natural successor, in his well-observed tales of ordinary working-class people living in Nottingham.
The Meadows connection is made more overt in the casting of Matthew Dunster’s stage adaptation. There’s no less than three cast members of Meadows’ This Is England TV series, including Perry Fitzpatrick, who takes on the role of Arthur Seaton, a working class Nottingham lad who dislikes authority, lives for the weekend, and has a tangled love-life involving two married women, who just happen to be sisters.
The casting is one of the major attractions of Dunster’s production; as well as Fitzpatrick, there are terrific turns from TIE co-stars Chanel Cresswell and Jo Hartley, as well as a moving central performance from Clare Calbraith as Arthur’s married lover Brenda. There are also impressive supporting performances from Tamla Kari as the sweet ‘girl next door’ Doreen and Graeme Hawley as Arthur’s cuckolded colleague.
If there’s a problem here its with the character of Arthur Seaton himself. Fitzpatrick’s performance is just fine, full of charismatic swagger, but this doesn’t disguise the fact that Seaton is an appallingly obnoxious and misogynistic creation. Obviously, that’s the entire point, but there’s no clue as to why every woman who crosses his path falls almost instantly into bed with him. Seaton is the hook on which the production hangs, on stage for the entire running time, so it’s necessary for the audience to, at the very least, sympathise with him slightly, but Seaton’s proud and continual boasting about how he’d like to give various women a “pasting” (met, oddly, with genial chuckles from the audience) soon grows wearisome.
Obviously, he’s a product of his time, when such attitudes were commonplace, and Dunster’s production does attempt to make this distinction, recreating the late 50s period perfectly. The costumes are beautifully designed and there’s a soundtrack of 50s music is well-chosen. There are some superbly executed set-pieces, including scenes of Arthur’s military training, and a later date at a fairground, which make great use of the unique space of the Royal Exchange.
Dunster keeps things moving at a fast pace throughout, with the exception of the disturbing scene where Arthur talks Brenda into forcing a miscarriage by drinking gin in a scalding hot bath. The scene is drawn out to heighten its power, and is by necessity rather uncomfortable to watch. It’s also another instance when the character of Arthur is displayed at his worst, flicking a lit cigarette at Brenda’s slow-witted friend before kissing her aggressively; instead of warming to him you find yourself wishing for his comeuppance. Despite the considerable skill of the cast and the director, Sillitoe’s unappealing creation is something of a stumbling block for contemporary audiences.