Stoke, a Love Story is a richly allusive and playfully intelligent drama from writer Kat Boon and director Kat Hughes of Potboiler Theatre. It’s a poignant yet enjoyably unsentimental piece of theatre about living in a city that’s been “left behind”, a place of post-industrial malaise known mainly to the rest of the country for being Robbie Williams’ hometown (as well as the sneered-at subject of ‘crappiest UK city’ listicles and a documentary about the ravages of monkey dust).
Boon deftly blends metaphorical fantasy into the socio-economical commentary, as five divergent but interconnected characters navigate a Potteries-based apocalypse of sorts – as a thick smog descends and the earth cracks open (throwing up old ceramic remnants), the coal and clay once integral to the city’s mostly moribund industrial identity resurface in the form of a “giant slag heap next to Arnold Clark”.
The writing is nimble and lyrical, with lovely evocations of Northern Soul music and dance (featuring impressive moves from the entire cast) and Stoke’s ardent spiritualist movement, plus a brief re-creation of a rave at the once-famous Shelley’s Laserdome.
Under Hughes’ direction, the actors – all with impeccable Stokie accents – make dynamic use of Longton Methodist Central Hall’s curving balcony (though the high-ceilinged acoustics sometimes snatch the dialogue) and there’s great support from a live band delivering original compositions, including a sweetly memorable song about the act of potting.
Beyond the specifics of Stoke, it cleverly delineates the importance of memory and moving on, the complicated tie between people and places.