[Written for CultureWars.org.uk]
With Sons of York, the Finborough’s playwright-in-residence James Graham makes a fair stab at establishing himself as a British Arthur Miller. His tale of life and death across three generations in working class Hull during 1978’s Winter of Discontent nails the beginning of the end for British trade unionism. It does so with the same deadly accuracy as Death of a Salesman does the American dream, while doing for Callahan’s Labour Party what Osborne’s The Entertainer did for Eden’s Tories.
Set against the backdrop of the general strike, the microcosm of the family becomes a clear metaphor for the wider political struggles taking place outside. The grandfather – named only as ‘Dad’ in the programme – a retired haulier and staunch trade unionist, refuses to acknowledge his wife’s chronically deteriorating health while continuing to browbeat his son, Jim, who in turn lashes out at his own son in impotent fury.
What is immediately striking about the play is how of-its-period-setting it is. It is as if by engaging with the era Graham has, perhaps unconsciously, completely adopted kitchen sink realism most associated with it - intercut with Pennies From Heaven style musical interludes where the grandparents sing songs from their working man’s club circuit entertaining youth.
For all its lack of theatrical innovation, however, Graham’s play is, for the most part, an assured example of the genre. If anything, its problems stem from a modern audience’s mistrust of such straightforward narratives that run the risk of bordering on self-parody. The whole school of Grim Up North drama has been so mercilessly parodied in the interim it should be nigh-on impossible to take these scenes of a family shouting at each other in northern accents even slightly seriously. It is a tribute to Graham’s writing, Kate Wasserberg’s excellent, detailed direction and the fine acting of the cast, that such worries hardly ever raise their heads. Perhaps the climatic penultimate scene strays a little too far into melodrama, perhaps some of the arguments over the pros and cons of trade-unionism seem a little contrived and research-oriented, but for the most part the emotional intensity at the core of the play overrides these concerns.
It is clear that the family embodies the death of British trade unionism, and indeed socialism. It is a damning judgement of trade unionism that, despite his superficial warmth and heart, the grandfather is ultimately shown to be a bully with his head in the sand. There is clearly far more sympathy for the grandson seeking to get out of the family trade with ‘A’ levels and maybe dreams of university. Having no characters from outside this extended family unit, the play almost pitches the Thatcherite ideals of ‘individuals and their families’ against ‘getting on your bike’, while suggesting that strikes are counter-productive to both the country and local communities alike. When coupled with such a (small-c) conservative style of theatre, it feels as if, for all its talk of socialism, concern for the plight of the working class, Sons of York could just as easily be held up by Conservatives as a perfect illustration of everything that was wrong with Britain before their 18 years in power as it can be understood as a left-wing paean to bygone days of solidarity that are now lost forever.