Not that it has been in danger of falling down on the job so far this season. Fiddler on the Roof was rousing and revelatory, a musical that was ripe for re-evaluation in the light of today’s refugee crises. The Conquest of the South Pole was baffling in the best way, a dense and poetic response to unemployment. And The Story Giant was full of warmth, arguing for well-told stories as a necessary means of coping with our world.
But The Sum takes all these characteristics and tumbles them together to create something thrillingly new, a powerful Everyman original that couldn’t have been born anywhere but here and now.
Written by Lizzie Nunnery, the lauded local playwright who also happens to be a singer-songwriter of spine-tingling sensitivity, The Sum is a play with songs that focuses on one Liverpool woman called Eve. Played with crackling scouse energy by Laura Dos Santos (currently appearing opposite Stephen Graham in ITV’s impressive Little Boy Blue), Eve is a woman in control of her work, her family and herself.
She is “a numbers person”, adept at keeping life’s little calculations running smoothly, balancing the books and making sure the sums always add up. But in a climate of cuts, shrinkage and austerity, it doesn’t take much for the maths to go awry and, along with it, her grasp on family and financial security.
Dos Santos is exceptional in this role, provoking deep sympathy as her comfortable-enough world begins to crack. It would be easy to name this as the Everyman’s performance of the season if it wasn’t for the fact that The Sum also features a clenched fist full of other brilliant turns.
Emily Hughes is wonderfully pouty as Eve’s perplexed teen daughter, Lisa. Pauline Daniels is heartbreakingly believable as Eve’s mentally fading mum, and the interplay between the older and younger mothers is throat-tightening, eye-glistening stuff.
Then there are the men in her life: partner Danny and boss Alan. Danny, played with a sense of weary optimism by Liam Tobin, is a protest veteran, a man fond of citing The People’s collective power but lacking the ability to harness it in today’s more atomised age.
Patrick Brennan’s Alan owns the dowdy homewares store whose financial woes help to topple the plot’s first domino. Initially he seems weak-minded, as all-at-sea as everyone else, but having set the story in motion, his growing sense of entitlement triggers the play’s decisive familial split.
Across the board and from beginning to end, Nunnery’s dialogue is punchy, spiky and delicious. It rattles with the rhythms of everyday Liverpool speech and, while it is often poetic, it is never over-burdened by a search for portent or meaning. In this talented writer’s hands, the poetry of real life is quite enough.
Music and song are central to The Sum. Literally so in fact, with composer Vidar Norheim and musician Martin Heslop sharing a sunken pit located smack in the middle of the in-the-round stage. This is a brave move, as it removes a fair chunk of the performers’ real estate and means that all action must take place away from the centre, in one of four domestically-styled quadrants.
But it works beautifully. Director Gemma Bodinetz has established a fluid style for the show that sees the action ebbing and flowing round the stage, banishing the jarring jumps and cuts that can mar productions with frequent scene changes. Each incident gets the focus it deserves, while the exquisite songs – including bittersweet beauties like Zero Hour Blues and Forgive Me If I Smiled the Day That Maggie Thatcher Died – also emerge organically from the whole, giving each key character their own private moment of truth.
And then there’s the politics. The Sum is dense with the stuff, by which I mean it lays bare the stark realities that follow from hidden decisions by vested interests, and provokes not just heartbreak, but steely gazes and rage.
It is this that gives The Sum such an edge – a very Everyman edge, it might be said. But though it is rooted in this theatre and this city, its story is not unique to this corner of the nation. It is a play that could be understood by anyone who has ever tried to disentangle those everyday equations and wound up struggling, wherever they are and wherever their journey might potentially end.
The Sum might sound like a play about numbers, but it’s a play about people, about Britain, about life. It’s a play about which the likes of columnist Camilla Long might say, “it’s exaggerated, it isn’t really like that” (this based on her response to Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake). But they would be wrong.
Whole communities know that stories like Eve’s are all around us, and the system that governs our lives works to secret rules. “Our sums are not their sums,” says Eve, and she’s right.
So while there are other shows you could go and see this evening, the Everyman is where you should be. Because The Sum is magnificent. And with an election just round the corner, it’s a play whose time is right now.
Images: Stephen Vaughan
What: The Sum
Where: Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
When: until May 20, then returning in rep June 16-July 1, 2017
More info: www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/the-sum
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Lizzie Nunnery, click here