“They kicked us out
And knocked our house down
And shipped us here to the arse end of nowhere”
I learned to swim in Skelmersdale, known as Skem to anyone who has ever been there. A couple of miles from the village where I was born, the drive to the Nye Bevan Swimming Pool was always a fascinating one visually due to the whims of the 1960s town planners who designated the place a ‘new town’ – sheets of grey concrete dominated the architecture and the roads were full of roundabouts after roundabouts, barely a traffic light to be seen among the network of subways. It was also a strange feeling though, as it was crossing the invisible borderline from Woollyback territory (your more typical Lancastrian accent) into the land of the Scousers (the inimitable sound of Merseyside).
I bring you this insight into the early years of Clowns because Years of Sunlight, a new play by Michael McLean, is set in Skem and whilst it had an undeniable nostalgic charge (I’m almost certainly the only reviewer there who got excited at the sight of the ‘Connie’, or Concourse shopping centre in a video clip), the play also had the unexpected result of making me think of the place in a new light. This particular ‘new town’ was designed to rehouse the overspill population from the poorer parts of Liverpool but the forced creation of new communities is rarely so simple as that, and it is this impact that McLean explores here, by following the thread of a 30 year friendship.
As one of those transplanted families, Hazel and her young son Paul, who quickly becomes fast friends (blood brothers even…) with Emlyn, are faced with making their new lives here but McLean switches the timeline so that we begin in 2009 where we find the shattered pieces of those lives. Scene after scene then takes us backwards through the troubled relationship between this trio, dominated by the substance abuse that mars Emlyn’s life and reverberates powerfully through the others. This approach, directed by Amelia Sears, is very much a slow-burner but comes to pay huge emotional dividends as its pieces fall into place and hindsight gives dialogue an almost unbearable poignancy.
Video interludes intersperse these scenes but could perhaps do more to really evoke the flow of time backwards, but Sears’ production rests on the considered intelligence and tenderness of its performances. Bryan Dick’s Emlyn and Mark Rice-Oxley’s Paul have the unenviable task of ageing back to 10 but do so with real conviction, carrying their innate characteristics with them – Dick always exploring the addictive tendencies of his rebel and chancer, Rice-Oxley’s desire to please – and recognition that he can’t always win – always a part of him. And Miranda Foster is terrific as Hazel, an Irishwoman always making the best of a bad lot, radiating maternal love even as she enables her adoptive son’s drugs habits.
There’s also striking work from John Biggins’ Bob, a long-time resident of Skem and a Woollyback at that, his resentment at the influx of newcomers a real slap in the face. McLean’s writing makes a powerful case for the failure of this example of town planning to really meet the needs of its people – all those roundabouts make it pedestrian-unfriendly and as in any economically depressed place, subways and council estates can become threatening and destructive environments. But he also makes it achingly personal, you really mourn the lives that are wasted and lost here, pulled apart by people just as much as the place.