I lived in Liverpool briefly in 2005 after failing to become a success in London. I’d moved back up North and swapped my dreams for a doomed relationship with a boy eight years my junior. In that year with him, I managed to visit nearly every pub, bar, club and café in the city, trudging miserably behind him and enduring his faint aspirations of becoming a singer-songwriter.
We lived just off Hope Street on Gambier Terrace (famed for being where John Lennon and Stewart Sutcliffe shared an apartment before The Beatles were The Beatles) opposite the Anglican Cathedral where, every Sunday, our hangovers were treated to tolling bells which rang us out of bed, out of the flat and once more into the nearest pub.
We split up, horridly so, and, while he went on to become a political hack at a local paper, I headed to Manchester and wrote unfinished plays about tragic affairs with young and bored musicians.
Before this hiatus in my life, the theatre had always been at the very heart of everything which inspired me. Having been taken from an early age to watch Cats and Starlight Express, it was this living art form that brought me to my knees, or to tears, or to such exaltations of joy that I’d spend my time dreaming that, one day, I’d be on those stages, or write for them, or perhaps even run one.
It seems obscene to me now that I was not completely aware of the theatre which sat at the other end of the street I lived on, right next door to Paddy’s Wigwam or, as it’s also known, the Catholic Cathedral. I’d been in both Liverpool cathedrals, several times in fact, and as a non-believer that too seemed ridiculous.
Perhaps leaving London had taken the shine off the grease paint, perhaps the boy had made me forget how much pleasure theatre gave to me. Whatever the reason, I never visited the theatre so, when it reopened earlier this year, I was glad of a second chance. I decided to become a Daytripper, to Get Back to Liverpool to banish the demons of my past and ask Thespis for forgiveness.
The sun is out, the sky is blue and, making my way up Mount Pleasant, rounding the corner to Hope Street, the Cathedral flanked on the left – its fingers reaching out to the heavens – I am impressed by the Everyman’s façade.
The new metal shutters on the outside cool the building down when the sun hits it in the afternoons. They are adorned with images which represent every man and every woman of Merseyside and were taken by Crosby-based photographer Dan Kenyon. In fact, the whole building is a smart, eco-friendly dream which warms, cools and lights itself.
Nicknamed ‘Liverpool’s third cathedral’ in the book of the same title by Liverpool University Press, it’s a splendid sentiment to the Everyman’s history and to the city which holds the building so dear. Designed by Howarth Tompkins and boasting a 400-seat auditorium with thrust including a newly-opened circle, this is a state-of-the-art space including a removable stage.
In early conversations about renovating the theatre, it became very clear, very quickly that it could not be moved and that an integral part of the building’s personality was its location. It was knocked down and rebuilt in the same plot using the same bricks. The new sign, which is based on the old one, is designed by Jack Tilson and is in Merseyside Neon, a specially-designed font for the theatre – a nod to the old but with a clear focus on its future and newness.
The current occupiers were told they had to retain three things from the old Everyman. One was the sign, the next was the Bistro – which is as famous as the theatre itself – and the last was its thrust stage. The architects have managed to achieve this while making the whole place feel entirely fresh.
“I sort of knew the Everyman was important when I got the job ten years ago,” says artistic director Gemma Bodinetz. “It had been part of my consciousness of theatre outside London. Although its light was slightly diminished, which was nothing to do with how people were running it or not running it, it was to do with the economic climate that happened through the 70s and 80s in the city and loss of funding.”
The Everyman was founded in 1964 in the appropriately named Hope Hall (once a chapel, then a cinema) in an area of Liverpool noted for its bohemian environment and political edge, and quickly built a reputation for ground-breaking work.
“The artistic directors of those days had set a flame so strong that, even in those darker days, I was aware of what they had done,” Bodinetz goes on to say. “They were amazing people that ran it. I had always been aware of it and I think that’s because of its strong personality and a strong sense of its place with a renegade spirit and an adventurous naughtiness.”
A succession of some of the country’s best directors, writers and acting companies have kept Liverpool and the Everyman on the map for decades, and the Everyman has been the crucible for an astonishing range of theatrical talent. Julie Walters, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Pryce, Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman, Antony Sher, Bill Nighy, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Barbara Dickson, Matthew Kelly, Cathy Tyson, David Morrissey, Stephen Graham and the Liverpool Poets all considered the Everyman a formative home in their early years.
Prior to its closure for re-development, the programme ranged from classics such as Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear, Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker and David Morrissey’s Macbeth to world premières of plays by a new generation of Liverpool writers.
Bodinetz explains: “You know a theatre’s important when you say you’re going to knock it down and the response that gets which clearly wasn’t entirely positive. It would have been worrying if we’d have had no response from the public but there was a very strong opinion not only for the theatre but for the Bistro. A lot of very loyal people were very upset. There was nothing in the old building that the English Heritage, for example, could preserve but you’re knocking down people’s memories.”
The new incarnation includes the famous basement Bistro which is joined by a new ground floor café that opens out to the street as well as a first floor bar and balcony above the iconic red sign. The building is also teeming with new creative spaces including a rehearsal room, workshops, a sound studio, a Writers’ Room, and EV1 – a special studio dedicated to the Young Everyman Playhouse, education and community groups.
The building is busy and full of people eating, meeting and thoroughly enjoying the space. It’s clear that that support Bodinetz speaks of has not diminished with the new building.
“You know how important a theatre is to a city with regards to the opening parade. We guessed how many people might turn up and I thought 300. It was raining and a Saturday night and we’d made it clear that you couldn’t get into the building that night, and I turned up and there were hundreds of people in the parade. When we passed the bombed-out church, there were people on the steps cheering us on and then we were told there were yet hundreds more people outside the Everyman waiting for us and I just cried.”
Having had a tour of the new space, a cup of coffee in the new café and seen an electric performance of A View From the Bridge directed by Charlotte Gwinner and starring Lloyd Hutchinson, Julia Ford and Shannon Tarbert before it closed on April 19, I’m excited to be shaking off the past and making the Everyman my first cathedral in Liverpool.
Main image by Philip Vile
You can look at some of the extraordinary building milestones on the Everyman’s website here
For details of upcoming shows, follow this link: www.everymanplayhouse.com/Content/Home/WhatsOn.aspx