EUTCo’s production of Port was a fantastic choice by the director, Niamh Smith, to show on the stage of Exeter’s MakeTank. Simon Stephen’s play is a compelling combination of English comedy and reality drama, as it captures the soul of his hometown, Stockport. As I’m originally from there myself, I found this complex love letter to the town particularly touching. This tale is an absorbing presentation of what can only be described as ‘raw’ life; it tells the life story of an ordinary working class girl, Rachael Keats, in an extraordinary way. As the director relates, “there is something incredibly powerful about taking the story of a life which has previously been overlooked as insignificant, and giving it the grand scale of a stage.”
The performance itself was incredibly well done, from the minimalist setting – staged by Rudy Tan, Jessica Thompson and Ted Drinkall – to the outstanding performers. There was a tremendous attention to detail by Smith, especially in her choice to have the actors sat silently on the edge of the stage as the action played out; the characters are a constant presence surrounding Rachael as she frequently laments the loss of each of them from her life. Additionally, the use of the famous song ‘Dirty Old Town’ in every scene change, which was originally written as a love letter to Salford (another place on the outskirts of Manchester), was perfect for the central theme of sentimentality for people and place. Most notably, this production conveyed the passing of time seamlessly as barely any signposting was required for the audience to understand the leap in years throughout the narrative. The narrative begins in 1988, where Rachael muses over what her life would be like at the start of the millennium, and then plays out exactly this, finishing in 2002.
This was demonstrated with impressive precision by the performers, who convincingly displayed the characters maturing. I must particularly congratulate Annabel Wilde, who played Rachael, for her captivating presentation of this central character. She displayed an outstanding ability to perform the characteristics of a range of ages, capturing the cheeky boldness of a 13-year-old girl who then progresses into a strong and resilient 25-year-old woman. Additionally, Macauley Keeper brilliantly performed the comical character of Rachael’s brother, Billy Keats; he produced sympathy in the audience as he conveyed the mental instability of Billy. Bridie Shine portrayed a thrilling performance of both Christine Keats, Rachael and Billy’s mother, and their nana, Anne Dickinson; the way she played the mentally crippled state of Anne Dickinson was especially impressive. Ollie Harvey-Piper also played two characters, Rachael and Billy’s father Jonathan Keats, and later Rachael’s abusive boyfriend Kevin Brake. He performed the scene where Kevin breaks down in jealousy and rage brilliantly. Finally, Josh Smith captured the awkward yet sweet character of Danny Miller, and produced sympathy in the audience at his and Rachael’s unrealisable relationship.
Finally, the innovative use of lighting, pioneered by Andrew Thomson and Gavin O’Neill, successfully conveyed the passing from night and day throughout the play. It opened with a moonlit scene of the family sleeping outside, evoking our sympathy, but then has an optimistic ending: the sun comes up and we hope for a brighter future for Rachael and Billy. When the lights faded, I found myself whooping and cheering along with the rest of the audience, congratulating everyone involved for this truly absorbing production. There was an outstanding array of talent displayed, with absolutely no exceptions, and I feel it is something they should all be immensely proud of.
Exeter University Theatre Company’s production of Port is playing for two more nights, on Friday 22nd and Saturday 23rd March, 7:30pm at the Maketank. Tickets available here.
– Jessica White