Theatres are all about secrets. They may open their foyers and welcome you in but the heart of each building stays hidden – a world of darkness and silence and stealth.
They are masterpieces of architectural misdirection and even at their most modern – with artifice apparently rejected and their guts spilling out – they still double bluff, they still hold things back. Somewhere there are things you can’t see because if you did the magic would go out like a light.
That’s the understanding between the theatre and its audience but I believe the magic is more resilient than that. Go backstage in a theatre and you come alive to a different kind of sorcery; rather than the cosy complicity of the willingly fooled, it’s the enchantment of being part of the trick. I felt it 35 years ago when I appeared as Third Spear Carrier in a play in our upper school hall and, as I was led through concealed corridors at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre just a week ago, that sense of theatrical collusion entrapped me all over again.
If anything in fact, the mystic pull of the Epstein is even stronger than usual, perhaps because the venue sits several floors above the city hubbub – above the buses and taxis as they stream down towards Liverpool One. Here, the whole venue seems hidden. Apart from a modest corner entrance on Hanover Street there’s no clue that it’s there but, once you climb its handsome spiral staircase, you soon begin to feel the embrace of its warm and welcoming hug.
In 1913 the venue was opened as Crane Hall – a small concert room – but was soon expanded into the adjacent building and redeveloped as a fully functioning theatre. It hosted amateur and professional productions for several decades, first under its original name and then as the Crane Theatre but, as television’s cathode-ray temptations increasingly kept people at home, theatres the length and breadth of Britain began to feel the effects. By the late 1960s, the Crane Theatre, like so many others, could have closed.
Lucky then for Liverpool that the city corporation acquired it, remodelled its front-of-house areas, and opened it again as the Neptune. When I came to the city in 1995, the Neptune was still going strong, a much-loved venue for theatre, comedy and music. I saw Eddie Izzard do some improv, I saw John Shuttleworth play his organ, and I even saw Lofty from EastEnders performing Nick Hornby’s Arsenal-philic Fever Pitch to a partisan Liverpool crowd. With just under 400 seats and a cosy wood-panelled warmth, it was the quiet character actor among Liverpool’s theatrical cast.
Running a theatre, however, is always a risky business and, when the Neptune finally succumbed to its outdated health and safety conditions and closed in 2005, there were fears it would never open again. So it was particularly heartening that following a few years of legal wrangling and a much-needed upgrade of its technical kit – not to mention the loving application of greasepaint and kisses – a team from the Liverpool Sound City festival won the tender to run a rejuvenated Neptune. Only, it wouldn’t be the Neptune any more.
When it was named in the 1960s, it was the call of the sea that still fuelled Liverpool’s myth, hence Neptune. By 2012 the city’s enduring pop culture clout seemed to have sprung from a cellar on Mathew Street and it was fitting that the venue should take the name of The Beatles’ inspirational manager, Brian Epstein. After all, this was a man for whom shifting the pop world on its axis was just a sideline; what he really wanted to do was to act.
Now run independently of Sound City – independently, in fact, of anyone, as it receives no council funding and must pay its own way – the Epstein delivers an ever-shifting programme of theatre and music, comedy and events. It can serve as a wedding venue, of course, and host conferences – though a part of me wonders whether its spirits rest easily when the grey-suited laser power pointers are in the house. Surely they itch to cause mischief? To curtail the corporate biz-speak and turn those flickering cursors into a powerful theatrical curse?
Perhaps not. But there really is mischief afoot at the Epstein, a prowling and wailing backstage that the public would never suspect. As the lighting technician Gregg Jones led me down tight corridors and round shadow-draped corners, and opened up dressing rooms that seemed to crackle with the energy of pantomimes past – “this is the haunted one, as you can tell by the temperature” – I was aware of a peripheral presence, a spectre that always ducked out of sight.
Or rather, two spectres, both with fur.
“Cats?!” I exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, we have them because of the mice,” explained Jones. “They’re called Cilla and Queenie. They live around the green room during the day then head up to the theatre at night. They have a ball up there.”
Of course they do. Two genuine theatre cats, three floors above central Liverpool – residents of a feline wonderland that exists out of sight of the city. They must have a riot beneath the auditorium’s exquisite green and gold.
Liverpool is rich with fine theatres, from the giant Empire to the bijou Unity, from the spanking new Everyman to the grand old dame of the Playhouse. They all have their secrets, they all have their ghosts – formed from memory, I think, rather than ectoplasm – but only the Epstein sits above Hanover Street, with cats that roam free throughout the night.
It’s a beautiful venue, a Grade II-listed treasure, and it’s pleasing to see it looking so well. Each ticket sale now carries a 50p restoration levy to help keep its Edwardian eyes blazing, so book a show there and feel happy that you’re nourishing its soul. After all, with a theatre shopping list that includes magic and cat litter, I can assure you that your money is well spent.
The Epstein Theatre is at Hanover House, 85 Hanover Street, Liverpool. To book, call 0844 888 4411, visit the booking site, or drop in during opening hours.