Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories: Northern Soul talks to playwright Ian Salmon
Like at least 50,000 other Liverpudlians, the writer Ian Salmon recently went on an impromptu holiday to Madrid.
“It was brilliant,” he says about his trip to the Champions League final where his beloved Liverpool won their sixth European Cup.
“When Origi’s goal went in, I’ve never felt anything like it before. That was the moment when we knew it was done and dusted, when we’d won.”
The city of Liverpool’s love for the game – whether red-shirted or blue – permeates Salmon’s play, Those Two Weeks. Having debuted in 2018, the show returns in September for a short run at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre where the moving domestic drama gets to play to a bigger crowd.
When I reviewed Those Two Weeks for Northern Soul last year, I enjoyed its warmth and humour but noted that it also packs a devastating emotional punch. This is because the two weeks of the title are the ones leading up to April 15, 1989, the day of the FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium. The ensuing disaster, which killed 96 people, throws an inescapable shadow across the play, but because it deals with the fortnight before the tragedy rather than the period that followed, the characters on stage are clueless about what lies ahead.
It’s an unusual approach, and it means the play seems to be simultaneously about, and also not about Hillsborough. I wonder how Salmon hit on the idea.
He describes a conversation with his wife during which they chatted about Allen Coulter’s film Remember Me, and Paul Auster’s novel The Brooklyn Follies, both of which build to catastrophic endings that, in a vaguely spoilerish phrase, come flying out of the blue and change history.
“We wondered if I could write something where the whole reason for the story comes right at the end,” he says. “Everything else is the build-up. And I said the only thing that towers over everything in our lives in that way is Hillsborough.
“That’s the before and after for my generation. No matter if you weren’t impacted directly – and my family were lucky – everything changed. I was at work, but my brothers were in the end pen at Hillsborough and my dad was in the main stand watching it all unfold. He was wondering if the next person he saw carried out would be one of his sons.”
Salmon was understandably wary of tackling the subject and was certain he didn’t want to tell the story of the 96 themselves.
“That’s the families’ story to tell in whatever way they want,” he says, “and it’s already been done brilliantly by Jimmy McGovern. But I thought I could write about what it was like before the disaster, because there was normal life beforehand. That tends to be forgotten.
“For 30 years, we’ve fought for justice for ‘the 96’, so it’s easy to think of them in group terms. But they weren’t a group. When the pen portraits were read out at the inquests, you started to think of them as individuals. There were people who wanted to be vets, who were going to university, who were landscape gardeners. So, I wanted to show a normal, aspirational working-class family where the grown-up children know what they want to be. They’re at a point where they’re starting life.”
If Those Two Weeks is a play of (mostly) quiet personal resonances, Salmon’s other offering for 2019 takes place on a much bigger – and louder – scale. In October, he takes over the main stage at Liverpool’s 1,200-seater Royal Court, where he’ll tell the story of a largely forgotten Merseybeat group called The Liverbirds.
Why were they forgotten? Perhaps the fact that they were all women had something to do with it. However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have an extraordinary career, and Salmon is keen to bring their startling tale to life in Girls Don’t Play Guitars.
The show’s genesis can be traced back to an article about the band written by Salmon’s friend, Paul Fitzgerald.
“Paul had seen a photo of these four women sat on the Mersey ferry holding guitars. He wondered why he didn’t know who they were, so he did a bit of research.”
That research turned up one of the most remarkable stories of the Merseybeat era, one that Salmon thinks more people need to know. And having since spent plenty of time talking to the two remaining Liverbirds, Mary McGlory (now Mary Dostal) and Sylvia Saunders (now Sylvia Wiggins) – Pamela Birch died in 2009, and Valerie Gell in 2016 – he has discovered even more about their astonishing lives.
“They formed an all-girl band in 1962, when the idea of an all-girl band playing their own instruments wasn’t even a thing. John Lennon told Mary, in the Cavern, that ‘girls don’t play guitars’.
“In 1964, they got a chance to go over to Hamburg for six weeks, and basically they never came back. They were massive in Germany and massive across Europe. So, on the commemorative plaque at the Star Club in Hamburg, it says ‘The Beatles, The Liverbirds, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix’. Everybody’s below them.
“They were living on the Reeperbahn when three of them were 18 and Sylvia was just 17 – four teenage girls in Hamburg’s red-light district. They supported Chuck Berry, they toured endlessly, they smoked weed with Jimi Hendrix because Mary rolled the best joints in Hamburg.”
Royal Court audiences love back-chatting Liverpool stories with the kind of language that can make even Evertonians blush bright red, so it should be the perfect venue for the play. Plus, as Salmon promises, the show comes with its own built-in party.
“At the end we’re giving them the dream farewell gig they never had,” he says, and with veteran director Bob Eaton at the helm – “Bob basically invented the idea of gig theatre” – it should be a raucous, rocking night out.
As loud as Madrid’s Plaza Felipe II a few weeks back? Maybe not. But with their Mersey-flavoured, gut-punching girl power, The Liverbirds are getting a belated chance to paint their old town red.
Those Two Weeks runs at the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, from September 18 until September 21, 2019. Girls Don’t Play Guitars is at Liverpool’s Royal Court from October 4 until November 2, 2019.
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