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Years of Sunlight review at Theatre503, London – ‘slow-burning and tender’

Mark Rice-Oxley and Bryan Dick in Years of Sunlight at Theatre503, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Skelmersdale in Lancashire was meant to be a place of hope. One of the experiments in urban planning of the 1960s it’s the backdrop to Michael McLean’s melancholic meditation on friendship and regret.

Paul and his mother Hazel are one of many families uprooted from their home in Liverpool and given a house in this gleaming New Town. Spanning a 30-year period, Years of Sunlight charts the relationship between Paul and Hazel with Emlyn, a boy of Paul’s age who grew up in care and whose youthful abuse of glue and lighter fluid would grow into a far more destructive habit.

The scenes unfold in reverse order, only slowly revealing the circumstances that have shaped the characters. As a result the emotional significance of some of the dialogue only becomes apparent later.

The pieces of the puzzle that is Emlyn gradually come together over the course of the play. It’s a bold approach that mostly pays off, even if the opening scenes feel disjointed and the play as a whole is slow to warm up.

Amelia Sears’ production asks a lot of its actors. Both Bryan Dick, as Emlyn, and Mark Rice-Oxley, as Paul, have to convincingly shift from weary, life-battered middle age to pre-teen giddiness. Dick is particularly impressive in this respect, transforming from a ruin of an adult to an endearingly nervy kid.

Video montage and music – Britpop, Princess Di, snatches of Thatcher – are used to illustrate the rolling back of the years, though the writing does this well enough. Polly Sullivan’s set, with rough concrete framing panels of rust and corrugated metal, feels a little too generic in its brutalist aesthetic. Michael McLean’s play is altogether more delicate, nuanced, and alert to the complex hold that both places can have on people, and that people can have on one another.

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Slow-burning, delicate and often very sad play spanning a 30-year period