They say that in London, you're never more than 30 feet away from a Simon Stephens play: last year the prolific writer had five premieres in the capital, ranging from the senses-overloading hallucinatory violence of 'Three Kingdoms' to his playfully accessible adaptation of Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' (which transfers to the West End next month).
Even by Stephens's eclectic standards, 2002's 'Port' – originally staged at the Manchester Royal Exchange by 'Curious Incident…' director Marianne Elliott, and revived by her here – is a surprise. An ambivalent paean to his hometown of Stockport, it captures the grey gravity of urban British adolescence with a naturalism and warmth almost entirely absent in Stephens's recent work.
Never leaving the stage, even for set and costume changes, Kate O'Flynn puts in a huge performance as smart, resilient Stockport girl Racheal, whose life 'Port' visits at intervals between the ages of 11 (in 1988) and 24 (in 2002). And a fairly grim life it is, tainted almost fatally by early abandonment by her mum. But this isn't 'Corrie', and Stephens leaves the darkest chapters in his heroine's book to our imagination.
It's the intelligence O'Flynn invests into Racheal that's almost more moving than what she actually suffers. She is wearily aware that – for the '90s, at least – there is nothing she can do about her lot, trapped in a dead-end town whose inhabitants she has little in common with.
But that's kind of how it was for all of us, surely: anyone who came of age in a British metropolis of low repute (as I did) will find something familiar in Racheal's coming-of-age and subsequent problems in achieving escape velocity from her hometown. It's definitely not Stephens's best writing but it's certainly his tenderest.
The scale of Elliott's production bothered me, though. O'Flynn's performance is riveting, but after a while it begins to feel too big, the naturalistic prose over-amped and over-enunciated in the vast Lyttelton. After a disturbing early scene in which Racheal loses her rag with her dotty nan, the ambiguities around the character largely drain away and her zen-like resilience to life's slings and arrows starts to feel problematically saintly. Andrzej Lukowski