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After Benjamin Myers published The Offing in 2019, one shrewd critic said if the novel were a play it would be “a classic two-hander”. On the one hand, you have Robert, a 16-year-old from a County Durham mining village, taking an open-ended trek down the coast before accepting his seemingly inevitable fate down the pits. On the other, you have Dulcie, an upper-class bohemian with an exotic past, living in seclusion near Robin Hood’s Bay on the North York Moors where the boy winds up.
The two should have nothing in common, but putting aside their differences in age, class and temperament, they strike up a deep friendship. That essential line remains in Janice Okoh’s adaptation – a co-production between Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph and Newcastle’s Live, two theatres at either end of the book’s journey – but in Paul Robinson’s production the culture clash is less jarring and the meeting of opposites less moving.
In the novel, which is told from Robert’s perspective, Dulcie is as enigmatic as she is austere, a woman who for all her passions is always hard to gauge. Played by Cate Hamer, she is more knowable, less severe, not so much the high-society gadfly with a take-no-prisoners wit, more the pleasant middle-class woman in need of company. Perhaps that’s why James Gladdon’s Robert is quick to relax into her company, prematurely casting off his teenage uncertainty and educational disadvantage.
The tension of their relationship is diminished. So too is the book’s central mystery about Dulcie’s long-lost lover, Romy. Okoh’s version is a three-hander in which Romy (Ingvild Lakou) moves from a haunting presence to a character in her own right, shortcutting the book’s slow-burning revelations.
That same critic also prophesied – no less shrewdly – that “any theatrical version would be missing Ben Myers’s bucolic prose”. Stripped of the book’s rich language, stripped even of its outdoor settings by Helen Goddard’s fussy interior set of weather-worn wood, The Offing loses many of the qualities that make it compelling. Dulcie is less extraordinary, Robert’s coming of age is less extreme, and Romy is at once too present and too little fleshed out to make us care.