Think of fringe theatre and you might imagine dangerous theatrical adventures at the edge of good taste, the brave and risky heading inexorably towards the outer limits of self-indulgence. But Liverpool’s newest fringe venue, the warm and welcoming Hope Street Theatre (located deep inside the city’s massive Masonic Hall), is currently home to a company paying homage to a far more thigh-slapping tradition.
Liverpool Arts Society’s new show, Long Joan Silver, is a rousing pirate rumble that often feels like a panto cut loose from its seasonal setting, now floating freely in autumnal waters. Written by Adam Ward and directed by Alex Medlicott, it bills itself as a musical, but with its barrel of groan-worthy gags, comedy swashbuckling and more than a hint of principal-boy perkiness, this is a fun family Christmas show in the making. Though they might have to lose the odd “fuck”.
The venue’s flexible performance space is fashioned into a deep thrust configuration, and the intimate surroundings help create a cheerful bond between performers and audience. There’s some serviceable audience interaction and scene-setting improv before the show begins, but even at lights down, there’s no escaping the whites of the audience’s eyes for this motley crew. Under such scrutiny, they do well to keep the spirit of levity and laughter rolling along.
The plot is a comic-strip creation about a pirate captain’s daughter, Joan (Kimberley Athawes), who wants to rule the high seas in her own right. Of course, she isn’t allowed. She’s meant to stay home with mum, slaving away in the kitchen, waiting for the men to return home from their pillaging. But when Joan is kidnapped by the pirate Mary Read – a real historical figure from the early 18th century – her journey towards dream fulfilment begins.
Long Joan Silver delivers regular chuckles rather than constant belly laughs, but the delightfully daft story is played with such commitment that you can’t help but be swept along by the peculiar endeavour. There are some strong comic turns, particularly from Catherine Fahy as Joan’s long-suffering mum, and Joseph Ball as the brilliant Big Sal. This latter character is a cracking comic creation, being built like the proverbial brick waste-disposal facility, and prone to delivering such sage piratical wisdom as: “What you learn here isn’t in facking books!”
Stick Phil Tufnell in the Big Sal role and that all-star panto will cast itself.
The intimate space doesn’t leave much room for musicians, but under the musical direction of Tom Wilson, guitar and percussion bring the jaunty score to life. The singing is a little uneven across the cast, and the songs don’t quite snag on the memory as might be hoped – exceptions are the clap-happy These are the Rules of Being a Pirate and a Rocky Horror-like number delivered by a shamanically cursed monkey (space doesn’t allow for the unpacking of that particular plotline) – but the overall effect is greater than the individual parts. The company’s ambition in creating a full-blown musical under low-budget conditions has to be admired.
Quite where a show like this sits in the scheme of things is a little uncertain, given that it steers a course between family-friendly fun one minute and something rather raunchier the next. I might suggest picking one of these routes and going harder and faster in a single direction, but then, who am I to say?
If someone asked me if it was a good idea to build a fringe theatre inside a Masonic Hall, I think I’d laugh in their face. But the evidence is right here in front of us. It just works.
Main image: Long Joan Silver Production Images (c) John K Roberts Photography
Long Joan Silver runs at Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool, until 20 October, 2018. For more information, click here.