This would have been a better play with just two people in it. It’s a harsh observation in respect of the four supporting cast members who erred little and might wonder why anyone might wish to delete their characters from the script. Yet Our Lady of Blundellsands is at its core a double-header about two sisters; their disturbing past, their dysfunctionality and their resilient bond.
The charismatic Josie Lawrence and Annette Badland perform the roles of Sylvie – a troubled fantasist – and her doggedly loyal sibling Garnet with humour and humanity as they gradually expose their family secrets to the light. The power of Jonathan Harvey’s new play is in the sisters’ monologues and interactions but the physical presence of Sylvie’s sons Mickey-Joe and Lee Lee (Tony Maudsley and Nathan McMullen) and their partners at times clutters this dynamic with shallower characters, albeit adeptly performed. Micky-Joe’s career as a drag artist and Lee Lee’s nefarious behaviour could have been woven into Sylvie’s reminiscences; her imagined family life set against Garnet’s clear-eyed account of the real story. We would have missed some comedy and pathos that way – the moment at the end of act one when the assembled cast perform as a manic, imaginary brass band to the tune of Floral Dance would be a sacrifice – but by stripping this production back we would have gained clarity of tone and dramatic impact.
There is also a case for dialling down the Scouse references. As someone who grew up on the fringes of Blundellsands, in the suburbs north of Liverpool, I bow to few people in my enjoyment of the Crosby branch of Sainsbury’s or Anthony Gormley’s beachfront installation Another Place getting name-checked on stage. Yet even for me (if not for some fellow audience members, who lapped it up) the local references were laid on a bit thick. It must be possible for Merseyside to have a distinctive and modern theatrical voice without over-relying on exclusivist in-jokes to get its laughs. Our Lady is about universal themes, but Scouse exceptionalism risks limiting its appeal outside the Everyman, which would be a shame.
Nevertheless, Harvey is a perceptive observer of human behaviour and of family dynamics. You don’t get such a long tenure as a writer on Coronation Street (16 years and counting) without such talents, and they are on show here. There is truth and wit in his writing. It is just that some ensemble parts of this play are reminiscent of one of his television soap opera scenes, adapted for theatre into a less realistic, more hyperbolic style. Sylvie and Garnet, in the hands of Lawrence and Badland, are the compelling, funny, tragic and nuanced figures at the heart of his story. These ladies could handle the stage by themselves.
Photos by Marc Brenner
Our Lady of Blundellsands is at the Everyman, Liverpool until March 28, 2020. For more information, click here.