The Offing, Stephen Joseph Theatre/Live Theatre, Newcastle, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until October 30. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com
BOOK club favourite The Offing, Hebden Bridge writer Benjamin Myers’s life-affirming account of a journey of discovery from Durham to the North Yorkshire coast, finally makes it to Scarborough after all.
A word of caution, however. Janice Okoh’s adaptation, with additional material by Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson, deviates from the book in its structure and tone.
In the words of The Crack’s Book of the Month recommendation, quoted on the paperback sleeve: “If The Offing was a play, it would be a classic two-hander, but any theatrical version would be missing Ben Myers’ bucolic prose, which he imbues with all the evocative rhythms of the passing seasons. This is what folk music would look like if it came in the written form.”
Well, Robinson’s premiere gives us the folk music in the compositions of hauntingly voiced singer Ana Silvera, recorded with Rob Harbron, Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Jasper Høiby. Lyrical, poetic, poignant, the score and sound design score highly.
The false note, alas, is struck by the disruptive decision to forego a two-hander’s ebb and flow in favour of a jarring three-hander and a ghost story to boot, rather than the gradual revelation of the sub-plot’s mystery.
It would be wrong to say the impact rivals the late Banquo’s arrival at Macbeth’s dinner table, but the subtlety and nuance of Myers’ book is dissipated, and the SJT autumn brochure’s billing of a “sensitive” adaptation might well raise eyebrows, particularly at the sight of a desperate hand suddenly reaching through the shed wall after the sound of scratching. This is not a Stephen King story and it is out of place.
For those not familiar with Myers’s best-seller, The Offing is a coming-of-age story, wherein miner’s son Robert Appleyard (James Gladdon) has left his County Durham pit community on a trek with an open mind and no termination date, working casual labour shifts en route to Scarborough.
Already, at 16, he has the wish to escape life down the pit; he has the wit, but not the tools. This is post-war, still-on-rations Britain: grey, anti-German and narrow (resonating with Brexit Britain).
We pick up his story just up the Yorkshire moorland coast at Robin Hood’s Bay. Narrator Robert is 90, tapping away at a typewriter, 74 years on from when he first chanced upon the bohemian Dulcie Piper (Cate Hamer).
Removing his jacket, and those 74 years, he encounters her out walking her German Shepherd dog, Butler (or ‘Butters’, for short, “although it’s not shorter”, he notes, in the kind of observation that will mark him out for his future career).
Initially, the focus is on their story, the one that leads to a lifelong friendship. Gladdon’s callow, diffident but keen lad needs awakening; Homer’s libertine Dulcie – haughty yet naughty, once well connected and rebellious, still opinionated, waspishly witty and impassioned but now disconnected, shut down, austere and alone – needs reawakening.
As she feeds his body on epicurean food and wine – “you have butter!” he says, eyes lighting up – and his mind with great art and the literature of Keats, John Clare and the sex texts of DH Lawrence, the culture-clash chasms of the book begin to bubble away. Albeit with surprising softness by comparison with David Wood’s adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s wartime friendship tale Goodnight Mister Tom, but an elephant has taken up residence in the corner too.
Or, rather, two elephants. The first is omnipresent: Helen Goddard’s clunky set sits squarely at odds both with The Round’s configuration and with nature, the outdoors, the flowers and fruits, God’s Own Country Yorkshire, that should be as nurturing as the food and the literature.
Goddard plays instead to the memory-play interpretation of Okoh and Robinson by constructing a heavyweight house interior and the shed where Robert beds down, an interior that has been stripped down to bare wood and faded, dusty pictures, furniture and items. The warmth is stripped away too.
Not only mice are scratching away in the corner. So too is elephant number two: what to do with the secondary story of Dulcie’s long-gone lover, German poet Romy. She could be a mysterious, haunting presence through her poetry, or even Silvera’s music, but this version of The Offing turns from a coming-of-age story to a coming-off-page story, instead having Ingvild Lakou’s Romy as an almost equal third player.
You would expect that in a film adaptation, but one of theatre’s great gifts, shared with books, is the deployment of imagination, a gift to let fly that is rejected here, and so The Offing becomes more prosaic than poetic, and so too does Romy, who fails to match the magnificence or mystery of Dulcie’s descriptions.
Writer and director seem unsure what to do with her when she is present, and Romy becomes a dead weight, stultifying what made the book so cherished.
Through no fault of the playing of Hamer, Gladdon and Lakou – always accurate to the script – The Offing and its characters feel weakened by transfer from page to stage, the relationships less impactful, the humour and colours muted, the overplayed ghost story failing to replace tension with (unnecessary) suspense.
Sadly, this misreading only makes you want to read the book instead.
The Offing will head back north for a November 3 to 27 run at Live Theatre, Newcastle. Box office: 0191 232 1232 or at live.org.uk.