The Fifteen Streets
The People's Theatre
14th July 2015
Catherine Cookson is an iconic author in the North East. Working in libraries even as late as the 1990s I saw first hand the popularity of her writing. We would have waiting lists that ran well into double figures, sometimes into trebles when the new title was due out. She writes about the harshness of life for the working classes in the north, where just surviving could be a struggle, and where the slightest change in circumstance could be the difference between life and death. She writes of families and communities - of loyalty and betrayal, identity and conformity, of justice and injustice. Her books have been read by many, labelled as 'light fiction' because they are romances and family sagas, but actually they are full of powerful social commentry. Catherine Cookson never preaches, and she does not romanticise the lives of her characters. She pulls no punches in her depiction of the harshness of life for those living on the edge of poverty. The Fifteen Streets is no exception and it makes for a powerful and emotionally charged stage play. There are many strands to the story, religion, social mobility, class division, domestic violence, prejudice. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the diversity and the intensity of the themes, or for the play to become something of a charicature, but under the direction of Maggie Childs and John Gray the People's Theatre production manages to cover it all convincingly and realistically.
The play opens with an off-stage tribal drumbeat and chant which seems out of place at first, but it quickly becomes clear that this is indicative of the tribal nature of the communities and their inhabitants, not just the workers in the Streets, but in the church and the other social classes.
The cast is substantial, not only in numbers but in quality - there are many familiar names in the cast list and there was not a bad performance among them. The Fifteen Streets is a story of hardship and love - acted with passion, whether in the love scenes between John O'Brien ( Craig Fairbairn) and 'Miss Llewellen' (Rachel Scott) or in the ferrocious fight scenes between brothers, fathers, sons, and neighbours. The O'Briens are a notorious family, known for their in-fighting and drinking, held together by the mother Mary Ellen (Sarah McLane) and terrorised by the father (Sands Dobson). Two of the family though, are determined to rise above life in the Streets and better themselves, their strength of character evident from the first - John O'Brien - a good man - and his sister Katie ( Rhiannon Wilson) 'a clever girl', they shine forth, different from their siblings and neighbours. But tragedy strikes and more than one family is torn apart by the repercussions. Will goodness win out and a dream be realised - or will the environment win out and pull them all back down into the darkness?
There are some great performances, notably the scenes between John O'Brien and Mary Llewellyn, which are beautifully acted, and bitter sweet, and the relationship between John and Katie O'Brien, which shows the affinity between a brother and sister who are both so different from their other family members. I also loved the performance by Helga McNiel of Beatrice Llewellyn, the aggreived mother, clearly jealous of the relationship between Mary and her father, too conscious of her social standing, and too quick to forget her own husband's lowly beginnings.
The People's Theatre have produced another excellent piece of drama. It is much, much more than the tale of the school teacher and the docker.
It runs until Saturday 18th July.