Review: Years of Sunlight, Theatre 503

Published in Time Out on January 31, 2017

Paul and his mother Hazel face the burnt-out ruins of her home. It’s on an estate in Skelmersdale, a new town built in the 1960s, drawing residents from an overcrowded Liverpool. Paul has long since ditched Skem – as it’s known – for Ireland, and returns disdainful of his former home. The disdain seems to stretch to his mother too, and her attempts to help his friend Emlyn, who became a drug addict.

Michael McLean’s play uses a reverse chronology to skip back from 2009 to 1982, and Amy Sears’s production deploys newsreels and pop music to effectively cue us in. The interludes help remind of the ways optimism and prosperity were lost and won and lost again.

The characters experience parallel fluctuations of their own: we see Emlyn living on the streets, but also opening an art show; as a thieving teenager, and a generous child. At every stage, Hazel tries to help the boy – and presumably it’s meant to be this that drives a wedge between her and her son. But Paul’s cruelty often fails to convince; it’s not clear why he would so wholly reject his lovely mum.

Billed as a play about the effect of the post-industrial political system on communities, Years of Sunlight is surprisingly light on social history – and as a portrait of Skem, it’s certainly a more grim than hymn. There isn’t much of a sense of the initial utopian nature of such projects, or how changing labour markets and political priorities affected them. One, extremely funny, scene does trace community tensions however: a corpulent, conservative old Lancastrian delivers a screed against Liverpudlians coming in, shooting up, and writing ‘fat Tory cunt’ on pictures of the queen.

This is an understated production, both in Sears’s simple direction and McLean’s writing – which has a lovely naturalistic ring, stuffed with quotidian detail yet swerving nostalgia. But I think the script is funnier than the production: certainly, there’s a black humour in the Scouse rhythms of early scenes that fails to land here.

Miranda Foster imbues Hazel with a worn-down warmth that seems just right, and Bryan Dick is excellent as Emlyn: gobby and edgy when he needs to be, but unbearably raw and tender too, as if life has stripped a layer of skin off him.

Where next?