Liverpool Everyman is so serious about its commitment to relevant new writing that artistic director Gemma Bodinetz considered Birkenhead-born writer Michael Wynne’s “story of myths, memories and family secrets” as the opening piece for the reborn theatre. She reconsidered after realizing it might not be entirely fair to any piece of new writing, however exciting, to expose it to the danger of getting second-billing in reviews to the theatre itself, its seats or even its toilets.
“Shakespeare could take that, though, so she decided to go with Twelfth Night. I don’t mind following William Shakespeare!” laughs Wynne, who remembers that “coming to the Everyman as a teenager is what made me love theatre”.
Hope Place, named for a real location just yards away from the theatre on Hope Street, was, he tells me, “partly inspired by the fact that my mum grew up just around the corner on Bedford Street then lived in Hope Place when she was really young and used to come to the Everyman when it was a picture house. She told me about that and then I started looking at other bits of its history, such as that it used to be a Temperance Hall and an evangelical church.
“When I was first commissioned, I wanted to create something that was celebratory and ambitious, that uses the space. So I thought there was something in investigating a family’s history alongside that of the Everyman, as well as the myths and stories people tell within families and, even, within this city itself.
“It’s a portrayal of family life and how memories, real and imagined, can shape our lives.”
History, storytelling and a powerful sense of place pervade his impressive play, so much so that the show actually opens in 1699 – “when Liverpool was just a fishing village with 500 inhabitants” – where a farmer admonishes his young daughter not to venture too near the bog that once made up much of the land around what was to become Hope Street. “It eats people up this bog,’’ he warns, to which she responds “Really?”, an immediate indicator that all is not necessarily going to be as it is reported or remembered in this family saga.
We flash forward to the present day – there are a startling number of scene and time changes throughout, by the way, mostly well-handled by director Rachel Kavanaugh – where a family gathers in their house on Hope Place following the death of their mother. As the booze flows, the sandwiches linger and the tales get taller, eldest sister Maggie (Eileen O’Brien, who starred in Wynne’s first play The Knocky, 20 years ago) is bustling around as usual in the home she’s lived in all her life, looking after her siblings, all of whom have long since flown the nest. There’s perpetually embittered Eric (Neil Caple) bristling away on the chair in the corner, next to Jack (Joe McGann), the peaceable old Socialist who’s been surprised to find that his natural gift of the gab is providing him with a new income as a tourist guide, enthralling naïve visitors with his unlikely tales of Cilla, Ringo and the usual suspects. Opposite, smoking furiously and already eyeing up the bits of family bric-a-brac she can put on eBay, is Veronica (Tricia Kelly).
But despite their differences they at least all share a common history in this house and the places around it. Or do they? The arrival of Veronica’s feisty, well-meaning daughter Josie (Emma Lisi) with her new ‘posh’ boyfriend Simon (Ciaran Kellgren) starts to reveal cracks and discrepancies in their memories and stories that only get more noticeable as Simon starts to probe the family members individually for an oral history of the area he’s working on.
Maggie, initially the most good-humouredly resistant to exploring the family history, is haunted by the past so literally that she can neither live fully in the present nor face the future, unexpectedly becoming the keenest of all of them to get to the truth that lies behind the family’s half-remembered secrets, lies and laughs.
Although the play is chock-a-block with local names, places and references, it transcends them to become a universal and, in the end, very moving story. An opening night Liverpool audience loved it, of course, but so, I believe, would any thinking, feeling audience anywhere in the land, at least if they’ve ever had a mum, dad, brother, or sister.
Oh, and I know the Everyman revels in the adventurous but a live cat on stage…! Even just for a few moments, that really is taking much more of a chance than finding a bloke in the front-row who’s willing to partake in a bit of music-hall bawdiness, especially right after a drop of interval refreshment.
Main image by Jonathan Keenan
Where: Everyman, Liverpool
When: until May 31, 2014
More info: www.everymanplayhouse.com/show/Hope_Place/1029.aspx