Way Upstream by Craig Johnson

The canal network across the UK now plays an underappreciated role in the country's culture.

In the 19th Century, however, the waterways had a vital role in the Industrial Revolution and impacted the wealth and the way-of-life.

But now the canals have a different role in our culture. It is, of course, more about tourism and leisure.

There is a play, though, Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream, a dark comedy using the UK waterways as a backdrop to tell a story about modern life.

Great playwrights have always written about the state of the nation. From Shakespeare to Harold Pinter, that best capture British culture.

Way Upstream ... A play set upon England's waterways

Alan Ayckbourn began writing plays in the 1960s and was one of the "angry young men” who like Pinter and John Osborne famously wrote about working class life under the banner known as kitchen sink drama.

Made and set in the 1980s, Way Upstream is about two middle-class couples who hire a river cruiser for a holiday on the River Orb. 

It's both terrifying and hilarious, a classic made for stage and then TV.

The comedy is channelled through Keith and June, an affluent yet cynical pair who bicker during the trip. Their marital misery is contrasted with Alistair and Helen who are a younger and seem untainted by life in Ayckbourn’s world.

As we travel down the River Orb they meet a mysterious character, Vince, whose brawn and boating experience creates tensions with Keith.

Initially, Vince is a romantic man-of-action who attracts June.

But as the drama progresses, as we get further upstream and Vince joins them aboard, the atmosphere darkens.

Emma and Alistair become kind of trapped as Keith and June's arguments intensify and Vince insists they call him Skipper.

Imagine the Ahab parts of Moby Dick set on an English river. With Vince’s control-issues the narrative veers into that kind of manic sinister you see in Herman Melville’s whaling epic.

If you want to see some classic British drama set on the UK's waterways Way Upstream is one of the best.

You can watch it on YouTube by clicking here ... England's canals and rivers

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