Much praise has, rightly, been heaped on the all singin’, all dancin’ tech that powers the new Everyman. Truly, this is a 21st century theatre.
What I didn’t realise is that they’ve obviously gone a step further, and patented a new playwriting algorithm – you know, like those computer programmes that can knock out a perfect pastiche of a Bach cantata: comfortingly familiar yet with just enough variation on a theme to keep an easy-to-please crowd happy.
And so it is with Hope Place – a new commission to mark the theatre’s opening season. And, with a heavy heart, I have to say it: the honeymoon period is over.
To be fair to (real, human, award winning) playwright, Michael Wynne, the brief was akin to a Poet Laureate forced to knock out a few stanzas to celebrate the engagement of a minor royal. How do you write a piece to celebrate the re-opening of a much loved theatre? Isn’t that, just a touch, narcissistic?
Maybe, the trick is, you don’t.
Hope Place concerns itself with the demons and deeply buried memories of a Liverpool family, for generations ensconced in one of those lovely houses opposite The Unity (you know, the ones you wished you lived in).
The play opens, as many bad plays do tend to, at a wake. The family matriarch has passed away: and the siblings are gathered in the kitchen, spinning tales, sparring.
There’s a lovely scene involving a brazen professional mourner and a lively volley of gags – siblings interplaying with each other, finishing each others’ sentences, and generally warming us into the proceedings nicely. It’s to their credit that the cast, centred around a terrific performance by the indomitable Eilenn O’Brien (eldest sister Maggie) does a lot with very little.
Simon (Ciaran Kellgren), boyfriend of one of the siblings’ daughters, hatches a plan – he wants to capture their stories, recording an aural history of the Burns family. And this device is the lens through which we see Maggie’s long-buried torment exhumed.
Throughout the play, we’re treated to brief flashbacks – glimpses of what lies buried beneath the theatre’s freshly polished floors: the boggy no-man’s land of the 17th century, Victorian fire and brimstone preachers, and the Temperance Houses of the early 20th century. There is a gritty and murky sub-strata to Liverpool, Hope Place is saying, just as there are layers to Liverpool’s families.
We get it.
But too much of the play is concerned with the tired mythologising of place – the pubs of Scottie Road, the ‘posh’ folk on the Wirral, the hearty pan of scouse and the rabid anti-Tory tirades: truly, it’s like Scouse Bingo. At one point, when a character walked on in a Sgt Pepper uniform I almost stood up and shouted ‘house’.
And the play itself revolves around a family secret that just feels inauthentic. Like a Joan Jonker misery memoir, it feels like a cynical exercise in button pushing – and when the big reveal appears, it’s hard to feel anything other than the crunching feeling of a narrative arc reaching its inevitable conclusion.
It’s a shame because, in one of the layers the play unearths – that of the rowdy musical hall that was to become the Everyman – we’re treated to the show’s stand-out moment.
As the audience shuffles back to its seats for Act Two, house lights full on, we catch the end of a show by Lily Lloyd, a tired yet game ‘old-mother’ type music hall singer: all heaving bosoms and theatrical winks (played wonderfully by Michelle Butterly). But there is real humanity here.
What’s her story? I wondered to myself.
That would make a fascinating play.
to 31 May