At the last minute, my friend offered me a ticket to go and see an excellent new stage production of Alan Sillitoe’s classic novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – which most of us know from Karel Reisz’s 1960 film version starring Albert Finney. I had never been before into the beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre which sits, futuristic, neo-classical, and surprisingly snug given it holds 800 people, in the centre of an old Cotton Exchange. Experiencing its 7-sided “theatre-in-the-round” and watching actors run on and off from all directions instead of into the usual “wings” was a treat in itself. As for the play, the lead performance by Perry Fitzpatrick can’t be faulted. He had so much pent-up energy, cock-sure charisma and bravado, that combined with spot-on delivery of some shocking and funny lines, it was difficult for the multiple actresses he shared the stage with to keep up! They did keep up though – every one was compelling. Jo Hartley as Emler was a thorny, darkly comedic gem.
From what I remember of the film, the part of Brenda is more stylised here – sensually as well as sexually charged, and less hardened somehow. She is more glacial, more mannered. Actually, I am not quite sure Clare Calbraith’s depiction would fit in working class Nottingham! Her sister Winnie, who for reasons of plot simplicity didn’t make it into Reisz’s version, was boldly and convincingly played by This is England’s Chanel Creswell. Anyway, all of the “love interests” were more attractively dressed and coiffed than Rachel Roberts was. Tamla Kari was more than equal to Shirley Anne Field as Doreen. I wonder if some link might be made here with the aesthetic development of a “soap” like Coronation Street (I mention this only partly because actors Graeme Hawley and David Crellin were in both!) which after all, once shared common “kitchen sink” concerns with the work of “new wave” writers and filmmakers like Reisz, John Osborne, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. It’s interesting to note that Coronation Street was first broadcast in the same year that Finney’s Arthur challenged audiences to consider the factory floor and not the drawing-room.
Rather than paying solemn homage to the British new wave or relying on a gritty sense of “black and white” grime, director Matthew Dunster and designer Anna Fleischles’ version is uniquely inventive, cleverly witty, and it plays games with us, now and then giving the audience a knowing wink – props fly on and off stage on an automated rail when a scenery change is required; two actors sit beside audience members to mime being at the cinema; Arthur suggests with a gesture that we might act as witnesses to a disagreement between himself and his boss. The ways in which he is caught up in something both metaphysical and potentially political are foregrounded sympathetically. Just 22, Arthur despises (or is it fears? grudgingly admires?) the Russians, the taxman, the rent collector, politicians, union organisers, the “Yanks”, the army, blokes in bowler hats, and even the wives who cuckold with him their half-suspecting husbands, in almost equal measure. He does not quite know what he is, what he stands for, what it is that he opposes. All he knows is an instinctive compulsion to make a lot of noise being an angry rutting “Billy Goat”. Yet there is a lightness of touch and feeling of intimacy, even fragility. Some scenes are potentially quite graphic (for instance Brenda’s attempted bath-tub abortion) and some are delightful (ghost trains, fairground carousels, and eventually fighting at Goose Fair); these combine into an eventful contradictory ride where tone is hard to define. The working class characters here are not caricatures or stereotypes but beautifully observed and captured, recognisably deeply human even when apparently hardened to life or struggling not to be beaten down by it. Ultimately, like most people, Arthur is searching for love.
As they say in the Royal Exchange’s publicity material, “Our policy is to express the bewildering, complex wonderment of life through the full spectrum of theatre.” This is certainly what they did last night and I am definitely going to go back as soon as possible!