In Michael McLean’s Years of Sunlight, we trace the lives of two best friends – Paul (Mark Rice-Oxley) and Emlyn (Bryan Dick) – from the latter’s death back to their childhood on the Skelmersdale estate; used to relocate inhabitants of overcrowded Liverpool in the 1960s.
At the start of the play, Paul, who we learn now lives in Ireland, stands with his somewhat estranged Irish mother Hazel (Miranda Foster) who remained in ‘Skem’ as they contemplate the recent death of Emlyn. We learn that throughout his life, Emlyn had problems, and sometimes stayed with Hazel when he had problems. As we trace their stories back to childhood, we see glimpses of their lives at various stages (along with some projected images giving a rough idea of the time based on political/cultural events), and it becomes clear that Emlyn struggled with drugs and was never able to settle; perhaps as a result of not knowing his parents, perhaps because of negative encounters with fellow estate dweller Bob (John Biggins). This subsequently strained his friendship with Paul, as well as Paul’s relationship with his mother.
Overall, it is a punchy play that comes in under an hour and a half, and the scenes are sharp and focused. The relationships between the characters are well-built and nuanced, while the script has both realism and tension throughout. You are engaged for the whole time and care for the characters, particularly Hazel who is left in the middle constantly picking up the pieces. Unfortunately, it just feels a little incomplete. The shortness of it means that some characters remain underdeveloped in the sense that their intentions or reasons behind actions are unclear. Why is Bob such an aggressive old man? What is the significance of his stroke/paralysis later in life?
Moreover, it means the significance of events isn’t explored, leading to vague implications that don’t quite cut through relationships. Is one slap from Bob really enough to send Emlyn into the murk of the underworld? That said, the script does a very good job of establishing relationships and then subverting them; chronologically explaining future reactions without sacrificing the realism of the script. The relationship which these events relate to ‘Skem’ is also not explored enough to make a real connection. Its importance appears somewhat ambiguous, although there are some interesting hints to the relationship between Liverpool and Ireland.
The performances are all excellent, though some are slightly hampered by the script; especially Biggins’ Bob. It remains unclear why he acts like he does. He maintains equal confidence when singing Sinatra to children as he does when unleashing an obscenity-laden rant on a younger, fitter adult. Foster’s Hazel maintains the balance throughout the play and brings poignancy to her scenes with Dick’s Emlyn, who is beautifully varied in his performance, although not as convincing a youngster; albeit this is due to lines from the script that don’t strike as natural. The dramatic pauses between Rice-Oxley’s Paul and Hazel do sometimes go on too long, but overall, he brings nuance to a character who goes through an up-and-down journey, and brings out the conflict he feels over his mother, while also producing some lovely facial work as a child.
In short, this play seems somewhat incomplete, as if there is something it is trying to say, or insight into the characters it is trying to give, that is missing. However, the dialogue brings enough tension to what is a fairly static play, to keep you engaged throughout the performance.
Years of Sunlight is playing at Theatre503 until the 18th of February. For more information and tickets, see here.