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Theatre Review Mansfield Polak

In communities where exploitative warehouses have replaced coal mines, Beth Steel has fashioned an uproarious state-of-the-nation comedy, says MARY CONWAY

Till the Stars Come Down
NT - Dorfman

TO watch the National Theatre embracing a play set in Mansfield feels like the nearest thing we’ve seen to levelling up in a long time. And it’s a beautifully crafted piece.

This world premiere by Beth Steel is real, deeply engaging and so uproariously funny that when the hard truth bubbles intermittently to the surface, its devastating and hyperbolic impact hits with exaggerated force. 

The play takes place at a family wedding between Sylvia and local Polish worker, Marek.  

Acting in the round, within a defined circle that often slowly rotates, the cast busy themselves with the tasks of the day, a silver glitter ball shining down on them. The characters, from moment one, blaze with authenticity and display individual quirkiness and eager engagement with the day that absorbs us in the action and never lets us go. 

While we recognise this wedding as one of hundreds that take place every Saturday across the country, this is not escapist froth. It’s a state-of-the-nation play as epitomised when blood, like an open wound, soaks the soft fabric of Sylvia’s pristine white dress. 

This family have lived here for years beyond count. Memories of Thatcher’s assault on the coal-mining industry and their jobs still wreak havoc, even though the young, gut-wrenchingly, seem to know nothing of the actual history.

In recent years, in place of the pits, exploitative warehouses have sprung up, functioning mainly on the back of Polish migrant labour and shunning the more union-minded locals who demand better conditions than are offered. Widespread unemployment continues to trash the people and their lifestyles; the future consequently so dark and hopeless that young and old alike face it with terror. 

It’s interesting that even the wedding, where the characters get drunk and lose themselves in self-destructive anarchy, reveals itself as another trap of a kind from which these people have no escape. It’s just a way of hanging on to today because tomorrow can bring only desolation and despair.

Nevertheless, the show bounds along filled with spirited characters, cracking lines, outrageous behaviour and cliches we barely knew we knew. 

The cast is excellent, the Bijan Sheibani’s direction exemplary and Samal Blak’s design life-affirming. Lorraine Ashbourne as Aunty Carol brings us a comic part to die for and Lisa McGrillis holds centre stage with unswerving character focus. 

As Marek, Marc Wootton creates a buoyant, big-hearted – just short of cartoon – bridegroom. He’s a daring creation played by an actor with Polish heritage, that acknowledges the barely concealed racism of the characters, who feel deeply the impact of immigrants on their lives: an unpalatable but essential truth in this story.

Altogether, the work feels like a throwback almost to the great heyday of new English writing in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s a play about real people, in real parts of England, who are crying out to be heard and who, unlike those who fill our TV screens, crystallise the truth about ordinary – often ignored – people in this country. 

A brilliant kick-start to 2024.

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