It’s an afternoon of images. It’s an afternoon of love.
The images are both actual and imagined. Many of the former are black and white, full of smiles and scowls and twinkling eyes, rescued fragments of decades past. The latter exist only in my head, popping into my mind as people’s recollections and stories pour forth. They are images of belly laughs and sadness, of theatre and of rage.
But the love? That’s real enough. It’s a love that doesn’t whisper sweetly, but sweeps over me leaving me tense and gasping for breath.
This love, this unabashed love, is for the theatre and television director Alan Dossor who died of cancer in August aged 74. And the place where it’s being summoned up and unleashed is the Everyman in Liverpool, the theatre that Dossor led during the early 1970s.
Gathered round the famous stage are family and friends, professional colleagues, those whose lives were not merely touched by Dossor, but shaken and turned upside-down. There are well-known ex-Everyman names – the likes of Jonathan Pryce, Alison Steadman, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly, Roger Sloman – but they have turned up without their coatings of stardust, without the masks by which we usually know them. And they sit alongside his grandkids and partners, associates and peers, and those who didn’t know him personally but knew his name.
I count myself among this latter bunch.
As an Everyman devotee, I knew Alan Dossor as the man central to the theatre’s enduring myth. He didn’t invent the place but he took over in 1970 at the right time for the building and for Liverpool, forging its character as a cauldron of discontent and provocation during the most confrontational decade of our post-war world. And he knew great actors when he saw them; he hired them and moulded them and helped them find the fire within themselves.
But I know another Alan Dossor too, through tales told second-hand. As a friend of his daughter Lucy, I know of the dad, the drinker, the grumbler, the provocateur. I know he could be a joy to spend time with and that he could be difficult too. And that’s why I’m in the Everyman this afternoon – a friend of his family, someone who wants to build his own memories from the details that everyone is sharing.
One by one they take to the stage. Some of them are faces I know of course, and I can’t pretend it isn’t a treat to witness them speaking so freely, giving ad hoc performances that are ragged and raw.
Jonathan Pryce delivers an emotion-soaked song – The Worst Thing in the World, written for Dossor’s Everyman company by Adrian Mitchell and Tony Haynes. Roger Sloman tells anecdotes, the happy-sad kind that leave you furiously grinning while blinking back tears. The playwright Chris Bond – Dossor’s successor as Everyman director – recalls drunken Cornish afternoons and arguments skewered by laughter, while Matthew Kelly reads Bond’s own words in the form of a speech from Don Quixote Rides Again.
If we have truly lived, we do not die…
Quietly and precisely, the Everyman’s ex-administrator, John Gardner, reveals the fraught conditions from which Dossor’s art was born: rain pouring through rafters, bums often failing to fill seats. Willy Russell tells how his own flaws and failings were targeted by Dossor – “he didn’t do sugar-coating or kid-glove mentoring” – but describes how “being in that firing line just forced us to get better”.
And there’s more, much more. There are warm thoughts from Jake Wakstein, also known as the musician Jacob Trout, who performs a song for the occasion and recalls calling round to the Dossors’ house as a kid: “I remember this huge kitchen table, and being surrounded by laughing, passionate people drinking wine and telling stories.” And there is Dossor’s own grandson, Daniel, who just tells it how it is: “We’re all missing him, and we really really love him.”
There are videos too, relics of the small-screen fictions that Dossor directed once he moved to television. Rescued from archives and hastily tacked together from VHS remnants, they are instantly recognisable as the kind of popular, working class dramas that were once so commonplace in our living rooms. And wonderfully, there is Dossor himself, caught by BBC cameras for a Melvyn Bragg documentary in 1973.
Fiercely direct, but with a smile tugging at the edges of his lips, Dosser describes reading a passage from the provocative play Soft or a Girl to Liverpool councillors in the Town Hall: “Their reaction was apoplectic…But it isn’t a play for them. It’s a play for the people who have suffered from their decisions.”
And through these images, both real and imagined, seen and heard, I am able to add colour to the mental sketch I hold of the man. And because I’m creating him afresh within my mind – a personal perspective collaged from a series of personal perspectives – it’s up to me to choose who tells the story most vividly, who captures the essence of Alan Dossor the best.
For me, it’s the testimony of Peter James, co-founder of the Everyman and subsequent artistic director of the Sheffield Crucible, another theatre close to my heart.
Remembering student days spent smoking liquorice paper roll-ups and growing hair long, he says: “The extraordinary thing was that this golden boy was angry all the time and I couldn’t understand why. He was pissed off about everything. He was good at everything and pissed off about everything. He was very angry with me for not being angry. I was working class and he thought I should be fucking livid.”
This is an image of a fiery individual who could ignite a theatre, but also of a man whose anger provoked both action and pleasure. Because as James tells his tale, the room is rocking, the auditorium united in a mighty guffaw.
The Everyman in which we sit was recently rebuilt from scratch, reopening in early 2014, so its oft-told theatre tales of mending and making do are now receding into the past. Not that the building’s original basic conditions didn’t foster an adventurous spirit born from adversity, and it would be easy for those gathered here to regret the loss of those physical hardships in this very different theatrical age.
But as Peter James puts it,“this building seems to be a terrific reward for those of us who did the heavy lifting in the early years,” and current artistic director Gemma Bodinetz reminds us that when she first told Dossor that the old building may have to be demolished, he replied: “Theatre isn’t about memories Gemma. Knock it down.”
As it happens, this is where I part company with Dossor. In an ephemeral medium, memories always count for a lot, as do the buildings that act as vessels to contain them. But that doesn’t mean that when a theatre is crumbling around you, as the old Everyman was, the time won’t finally come when it’s better to pull the place down.
The afternoon ends with members of the Young Everyman Playhouse company pouring onto the stage, pummelling the sound system and provoking a few silver-haired celebrants from the audience to join them in the act of shaking down Babylon. The sequence they perform is culled from the last production Dossor saw in this building, the youth theatre’s devised show Until They Kick Us Out. According to daughter Lucy, he was thrilled by it. “He was so excited and inspired, he felt the rawness, the rush and the push again. He loved it.”
And that’s the image that remains. Young people clamouring for a better future within these Everyman walls, and people old enough to know better refusing to…well, know better.
In the words of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, whose song Ballad of Accounting opened this event:
Did you alter the face of the city?
Make any change in the world you found?
Alan Dossor certainly did. And this lot on stage, gyrating and stamping with abandon, have time enough left to show that, in his memory, they can do it too.
Images courtesy of Lucy Dossor
Alan Dossor was born on September 19, 1941 and died on August 7, 2016. The tribute event was held at the Everyman Theatre on November 13, 2016.