The Fifteen Streets – 3 stars

People’s Theatre, Newcastle.

Published in 1952, The Fifteen Streets was Catherine Cookson’s second book. The story came to her very quickly and completely: “Within an hour I had the whole story, right from the opening to the very last words. Every character, every incident and definitely the background. It was all there. I knew here was a complete story and I must get it down straight away.”

Etched in blood, passion and tragedy, The Fifteen Streets is an intensely moving drama, set in 1910/11 around the Tyne Dock and Jarrow. John O’Brien is a dock worker who fights against the suffering around him with his heart, unlike the members of his rowdy, brawling family. After a chance meeting with his sister’s beautiful teacher, Mary Llewellyn, romance blossoms for John. But this appears doomed because of the very nature of the classes of society which separate them. The arrival into the area of a family of spiritual healers complicates matters, as does the surprise pregnancy of local girl Nancy. No one, however, is prepared for the eventual tragedy which will affect the lives of everyone in the street.

This is the third time that the People’s Theatre has staged this powerful and compelling story of poverty, betrayal and love, and generally speaking they have made a good job of it. The set is simple but effective, evoking the feel of a busy working dock, at the same time as suggesting the sense of an overcrowded, working class poverty-stricken neighbourhood.

It is a play with a large cast of characters, and the ensemble of actors work well together to portray the sense of the setting; the busybody, gossiping, net-twitching neighbours, the rough, hard drinking, fighting dock workers, and the constant overbearing presence of the judgement of their religion. It is nice, too, to see some younger members on the stage, and they do very well in their roles.

There are some lovely performances throughout the piece. Steve Robertson and Helga McNeil play the well-to-do middle class Llewellyns very nicely, keeping the characters completely believable while ringing out every drop of comedy possible from their short appearances. Pat Dunn’s gossipy Hannah is a joy to watch. Pete McAndrew’s spiritual healer Peter Bracken is also a nicely judged and enjoyable performance, as is Sean Burnside’s as the fearsome Irish priest Father O’Malley.

Just by the very nature of the fact that he carries the story and barely ever leaves the stage, Craig Fairbairn does stand out as John O’Brien. The character runs the whole gamut of emotions as the story unfolds and reaches its conclusion, and Fairbairn’s performance throughout is solid and assured. He manages to keep firmly in control, never straying into the dangerous territory of overplaying scenes or emotions, allowing the audience to really empathise with John.

Unfortunately though, there are one or two performances from other members of the company that are completely misjudged, and which utterly detract from the intense drama of the scenes in which they appear. In fact, they are so far from the mark that it’s very difficult to understand how they were ever allowed to get away with it in the rehearsal room.

Some ill-timed pieces of music to underscore certain scenes feet a little clunky too, but these are few and far between and don’t spoil the enjoyment too much.

All in all though, this is an entertaining and faithful rendition of Rob Bettinson’s adaptation, and is certainly worth catching, particularly if you’re a Cookson fan.

(originally posted 17 July 2015)

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