Manchester Theatre Awards

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The Black Stuff (GM Fringe)

Holl Morrell
Lioness Theatre & Music
King's Arms, Salford
14 July 2018

Rubber, according to a song in The Black Stuff, is a miraculous substance. But until a method was discovered for preventing rubber from cracking in winter and melting in summer it was of little practical value. Charles Goodyear (Danny Dixon) discovered how to treat rubber so it could be of widespread use, but took so long doing so that his family was driven into penury and half of his children died of poverty-related diseases or hunger. Goodyear was an amateur and did not realise that professional chemists could work out from his samples the formula for vulcanising rubber and steal his discovery. He did not get the financial recognition he deserved in his lifetime, but then his objective was always to go down in history as a person who contributed to the good of society.

Fact-based plays require a lot of detail to be communicated so the audience can appreciate the significance of events. Care has to be taken, however, to avoid talking down to patrons in the manner of those grim ‘educational’ plays that tour schools. In that respect turning Charles Goodyear’s story into a musical works really well: Holl Morrell’s score and lyrics are bright, breezy and a bit off-centre to keep things entertaining throughout. A variety of styles is used with discretion, including rap, but the most successful is the hint of music hall from Andy Pilkington’s camp and sardonic narrator.

Director Liz Kearney treats the story of Charles Goodyear, if not as an classical tragedy, then certainly as a cautionary tale. After some initially light-hearted scenes at the opening (mainly associated with condoms), Danny Dixon plays Goodyear as someone so obsessed with his vision as to be ignorant, or careless, of what is happening in the wider world. While Goodyear might not be destroyed by his fatal flaw, he certainly brings down immense suffering on his family. The approach has an authentic feel but makes it hard to like the character, and musicals usually revolve around sympathetic leads.

The Black Stuff contrasts the attitude of Charles Goodyear with that of his wife, Clarissa (Moureen Louie), who taught herself to hunt and fish purely to feed the family after her husband became indifferent to their plight. It is an inspired approach; Louie develops Clarissa from a submissive to a haunted woman, determined to ensure her family survives, and gives the audience a character who can be admired without reservations. Widening the story to include Clarissa’s perspective brings a feminist slant to the show, examining the obstacles she had to overcome to make progress. One might, however, question the historical accuracy of a song with a chorus of ‘Smash the patriarchy.’  

Morrell and Kearney can clearly relate to a driven character such as Goodyear, and if The Black Stuff is not a success it won’t be for want of trying. The audience is guided towards the theatre by a series of rubber ducks, passing posters with historical detail of the period and merchandise including CDs, key rings and a very swish programme. All involved are bursting to make the show work.

Lioness Theatre & Music have devised a refreshing method of tackling fact-based plays that avoids bogging us down in detail or addressing the audience in a condescending manner. The cheeky and brash approach is hugely appealing and highly informative – the points really do get across. As is often the case, a degree of self-indulgence slips in and the play over-runs, making one wonder if describing the working of the library where Charles and Clarissa undertook their research was necessary, but in the main The Black Stuff is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Reviewer: David Cunningham