15 February 2018.
When 15-year-old local lad Christian Dibmore lands a part as a paperboy in the nation’s favourite soap Mancroft Walk, his mother Sharon and nana Jean couldn’t be happier. For a boy from a working class community in Moston, this is a life-changing moment.
On-screen, Christian plays Billy, a newspaper boy in a relationship with long-running character Rosie Chadwick. Rosie is played by Mandy, who is already a soap veteran despite only being a teenager herself. When they become friends in real life, she introduces him to the delights of both Manchester’s gay nightlife and her gay half-brother Max. It soon becomes apparent Christian’s life is going to change in more ways than he or his family expected.
With a storyline set in 1992, Chris Hoyle’s script and Simon Naylor’s direction have a lot of fun with the period. “Bollocks to the poll tax” says Nana Jean’s t-shirt, there’s much messing about with the video recorder to replay Christian’s television appearances and the Dibmore’s landline never stops ringing as “our Joyce” calls for constant updates on family life.
The production also affectionately recreates a taste of Manchester in the early nineties, and more specifically its vibrant youthful gay scene. Christian constantly checks on his ‘curtains’ haircut, Max’s bedroom wall is covered in Smiths and Stone Roses posters, their wardrobes contain labels like John Richmond and Comme Des Garcons and they spend their nights out at Manto and Flesh.
One of those nights, fuelled by pills, weed and poppers, ends with a gentle moment of intimacy between schoolboy Christian and 21-year-old Max. As they get closer, they spend more time together. Max’s efforts to keep the developing relationship secret are undone by Christian’s celebrity and the attentions of the tabloid press.
When dealing with the exposure of their relationship, the script is tightly focused on the hypocrisy of the time, especially as exemplified by the media. While newspaper reporters are happy to label Max a “child molester” they are indifferent to the impact their aggressive door-stepping and banner headlines (“GAY SEX SHAME”) will have on a 15-year-old. Similarly, Eve Steele’s cool, calculating Executive Producer Dawn Chambers is unable to tolerate “that kind of behaviour” being associated with a “family show” like Mancroft Walk, although has no qualms about her ratings boosting storyline featuring a teenager impregnated by her teacher.
The emphasis on the resulting outrage and shaming is a strong reminder of how oppressive the nineties could be for two young gay men. Naylor’s production also captures a more personal sense of how, even then, this was still a love that dare not speak its name. In a beautifully done scene, the normally noisy Dibmore family endure periods of excruciating silence as they struggle to find the right language to discuss how they feel about their beloved Christian’s sexuality.
Chris Hoyle’s play appropriates the tropes of soap to good effect. Gritty stories, big characters and sparky dialogue blending humour and pathos. However it also has something to say about soap operas themselves. The mini-clips of Mancroft Walk we see include some gloriously silly dialogue. “Shut up and have another wine gum” says Mandy after newspaper boy Billy confesses he would never move to London because they “don’t do gravy on their chips”. Inspired by writer Hoyle’s real-life experiences as a child actor in a soap, it’s tempting to see a bit of score-settling as the play pokes fun at the disconnect between the supposed reality of soaps and the lives people actually live. On hearing her gay grandson is to be sacked from Mancroft Walk, Nana Jean lets rip – “you can shove your far-fetched storylines up your arse”.
Played out on a multi-level stage featuring a changing array of rooms and locations, this is 53two’s most ambitious production to date. Director Simon Naylor has learnt how to use the arch-based space to maximum effect. Energy levels are kept high as characters come and go via the audience as well as the stage, overhead televisions play episodes of Mancroft Walk interspersed with adverts for Gold Blend and Wispa, and familiar tunes of the time soundtrack the story. Especially striking is Naylor’s use of a small ensemble to supplement the main characters and support the regular scene changes. Converging en masse as a camera crew they help shift the focus suddenly from home to television studio, or as a cluster of clubbers they move their bodies higher while seamlessly transforming a living room into a nightclub entrance.
Packed with soap alumni, this is a cast with real insight in to the pleasures and pressures of life in the spotlight. The six main actors enthusiastically throw themselves in to their characters and the story. Newcomer Daniel Maley, on stage for most of the play, skillfully conveys both Christian’s lingering vulnerability and increasing confidence as he edges in to adulthood. Both he and Sam Retford (Max) create a touching relationship characterised by youthful nervousness and excitement. As prima donna soap star Mandy, Hollie-Jay Bowes gives a firecracker of a performance, causing uproar at every opportunity. Karen Henthorn as feisty fidgety Nana Jean and Samantha Siddall as down-to-earth mother Sharon are similarly hilarious as they get caught up in the giddy excitement of their family’s association with a show watched by 14 million people. Their two finely judged and carefully complementary performances also bring emotional heft to the play, particularly in the final scenes as they struggle to deal with the aftermath of the tabloid revelations.
Relishing its 1990s Manchester setting, ‘The Newspaper Boy’ delivers a hugely entertaining modern history morality tale with a cast of vivid characters. Simon Naylor’s production pulls out all the stops to do full justice to Chris Hoyle’s headline-grabbing closet-smashing love story.
Images by Richard Kelly.