Fiddler on the Roof. Liverpool Everyman. 11.03.17

Patrick Brennan as Tevye. Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great show. It has one of the greatest opening numbers- Tradition- and one of the greatest lead characters- Tevye- and it draws you into the heart of a small, tight knit community before breaking your heart as you watch that community being torn apart. In a world where we have been watching this happen too often in recent years it has great resonance and poignancy. It’s a wonderful choice for the opening production of the Everyman’s new repertory company, popular and familiar without being trite or hackneyed and perfect for a small, intimate space- especially when it is set up in the round. Great writing doesn’t date and nor do characters whose humanity and relevance still remain strong. It is just over fifty years since it opened in New York, won nine Tony awards and went on to become what is still the second longest running show on Broadway. It is set in Imperial Russia in 1905, but the kind of human tragedies that it deals with have never gone away and they never will and this truth has led to it being performed all over the world ever since.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

There are no great West End voices here and no star performances- that would have unbalanced a delicate, spare production set in a small, intimate space. It is an ensemble piece by the newly formed repertory company and it is this company- and above all the theatre itself- which is the star. The actors know their characters perfectly and their energy and conviction is both charming and utterly believable. At the heart of the show is Patrick Brennan’s Tevye, a fine performance which shows us a real, conflicted man whose humour and warmth sits alongside a deep, uncompromising faith. He has the best lines, especially when talking to his God, and we are allowed to see what he is thinking.

The staging, by director Gemma Bodinetz, is simple and direct and the audience is close to the action, so close that we can almost feel part of the community that we are watching. This is not musical theatre as spectacle, where we watch from afar and marvel at lumbering stage machinery and great set pieces, it is musical theatre with heart and soul where people sing because words are no longer enough and we see the concerns of real human beings- our own concerns- reflected on stage.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

This is the first production in the new, award winning theatre by a company who have big boots to fill. Last time the Everyman had a rep company it produced a group of young actors and writers who became household names and the delight of the audience was obvious. Even for those who had been regulars at the old theatre this will still have been one of their first sightings of the new space in action and there was a real sense of joy in the air as they found that their beloved rep company had been given back to them in a theatre made magically young and beautiful again. For those involved in that process it will have been a delicate task, but they have given Liverpool back one of its treasures. It was very moving to be part of the standing ovation at the end, an ovation for the cast and the show- of course- but it was also a welcome back for the Everyman rep from a delighted city of Liverpool.

The Sum of Parts. (Part of anthology) Liverpool Everyman. 30-09-10

I arrived at the Everyman to pick up my ticket with absolutely no idea what was going to happen. This is something rare if you are going to the theatre and something to relish. Usually I know all too much about what is going to happen. It is probably what I already know, a favourite actor, a classic play, a good review, or a writer with a great reputation, that has led me there. This was different. For ten pounds I was being given an hours worth of adventure, with nothing to reassure me beforehand that it was going to be ten pounds well spent. Whatever it was wasn’t even going to happen in the theatre. That was just the starting point.

When I was given my ticket I discovered that it was press and guests night- opening night basically- and the girl who handed it over already knew that I was one of only two members of the public who were due to arrive. A very suave gentleman who may or may not have been the front of house manager (I quite like the fact that I didn’t know that either) found out that I had come a long way, asked me if I was “flying solo” and told me that he was going to give me a party popper. There was something about the way he said it that made me feel like he had decided to give me a special treat. I got myself a coffee and sat down. The foyer began to fill up. I think I may have seen Timothy Spall- if it wasn’t him it certainly should have been. I began to realise that when I looked round the packed space I couldn’t see anyone else with a party popper. Most of them had headphones. This started to worry me so I asked about it.
“Should I have headphones?”
“Have you got a party popper?”
“Yes.”
“That’s all right then- you don’t need headphones.”
Curioser and curioser. I sat back down.
Eventually we were all shepherded up into the auditorium, where the empty set for Tis Pity She’s a Whore was waiting for us. An old fashioned milkman in a white coat and peaked milkman’s cap ambled down one of the aisles and sat down. I have no idea what he was doing there. A stage manager appeared to say that those with appointment cards were to go back down to the foyer. Then an excited Liverpudlian guy ran onto the stage anxious that those of us with party poppers should follow him as there wasn’t much time. My play had started. I hurried after him with a few others. By the time I caught him up he was opening a locked door just beside the theatre.
“Told you it wasn’t far.”
There were about twelve of us who found our way into his tiny, grubby disorganised little room, floor covered with unpaid, unopened bills, and settled into the cushions and chairs down at the far end. For the next hour he told us his story, and it was heartbreaking.

Ken Bradshaw’s performance as Pete in The Sum of Parts was a real tour de force. Up close in that tiny space he had no option but to give us complete truth and honesty. As the play progressed we realised what was actually going on, and watched him fall apart, and a shocked silence came over his little audience. Pete was a decent well meaning man who had let his wife down badly thanks to a combination of his own weakness and his lack of ability to cope with a settled existence. Now his only chance in life had been destroyed by her death. A portable radio provided clues for us as we listened into his thoughts and memories through it. Slowly we saw the layers of his personality and his delusions being stripped away. Finally we were able to piece together what was really going on, and why. We were waiting to pop our party poppers as a welcome for someone who would never arrive. There was no way that this was going to end happily. We left Pete collapsed in the corner of the room, staring into space.
The writing, by Kellie Smith, was pitch perfect. She gave us real dialogue which was able to convey gut wrenching emotion without ever going over the top and the structure of the piece was beautifully done as information was drip fed slowly and the mood of the play changed. I spoke to Ken Bradshaw afterwards, needing to let him know the effect that he had created (after all I was one of only a dozen or so people in a position to do that) and his first reaction was to say what a terrific piece of writing it was and point out Kellie Smith who was standing nearby. If I had been brave enough to go over and speak to her too I have no doubt at all that she would have returned his compliment. I am glad that her writing, and his performance, found each other and incredibly grateful that I was given a party popper and allowed to be one of the few people who will see it. It was a wonderful reminder of exactly what is special about theatre. I can’t believe that The Sum of Parts is not the best of the seven plays which make up Anthology, but if I lived close enough to the Everyman I would certainly be seeing the rest, just to make sure!

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Liverpool Everyman. 17-06-10

So Howard Brenton, a long time socialist firebrand, has finally got around to adapting one of socialisms best loved and most influential texts. I wonder what took him so long? It has found the perfect home in Liverpool, given the strong socialist tradition there and the fact that its author Robert Tressell was buried in an unmarked, mass paupers grave in the city. He didn’t live to see that he had achieved everything he set out to do when he hawked his manuscript round publishers unsuccessfully under an assumed name for fear of reprisals. It is very much a novel for its times, written when social justice was becoming an issue and accepted mores were being challenged by the growth of the labour movement. It is a (very long) tract with an agenda but one with enough real characters and humour to help the pill go down.

I saw the first preview performance but the production was already firing on all cylinders. It is a simple story at heart. We follow the trials and consolations of a group of journeymen workers and their bosses as they renovate an old house and as they complete it we are shown with a cold clear eye how the world works. This may sometimes be shameful and unforgiving but it is never without compassion and humour. It would be nice to think that things have changed for the better, but it all seems very familiar. The big difference of course, and it is a huge one, is that we now have a welfare cushion for those in need which protects us from complete penury. All that the characters in the play can hope for is the kindness of strangers, there is no help that is theirs by right when they fall ill or are laid off. All of them are living on a knife edge as they try to stay on the slippery pole of existence and make their way upwards. No wonder that when someone gets a chance to claw their way up a few inches they take it without looking back. Any small act of generosity is taken advantage of without a second thought. There is a clear acceptance within society that everybody has a place and few challenge it. While our sympathies have to be with the working men the play also clearly shows the cost that the system exacts on the bosses too. There are no real heroes or villains, everyone is looking out for themselves because they have no choice.

There is a lot of nice ensemble work from the cast. They are a believable group of workers and when things go wrong we feel for them terribly. The scene between Easton (played by Will Berr) and his wife Ruth (played by Laura Rees) is particularly moving. We have already seen how their money troubles are in part the result of his weakness and generosity and it is heartbreaking to watch them as they are forced to face the consequences. The most difficult part is that of Frank Owen, beautifully played by Finbar Lynch. He is a clever talented craftsman, down on his luck and forced to take on journeyman work, who tries to get his fellow workers to see that they are complicit in the system and need to think about the part which they play in it. It is difficult because it needs an actor with charisma who is able to let us know what he is thinking as he watches, works out what to do and who is on his side. Frank is a character who might be easy to dislike if it was played wrongly. Finbar Lynch gave an intelligent thoughtful performance and I could really see the wheels of his mind at work and feel the warmth of his compassion. The money trick is a classic scene and it was played with conviction and humour.

The direction, by Christopher Morahan, was great, full of ideas and fast paced. I liked the use of cleverly designed masks for the bosses, making them symbols of a corrupt system to set against the more personal view of the working men. The set, on two levels, was a mainly realistic view of the old house that they were renovating and it was a very powerful visual image to see it come back to life and smarten up as they worked.

The Everyman is about to experience a £28 million redevelopment. The new Everyman will be “celebratory, inclusive and very green” and fit for a “uniquely cultural city”. You can’t argue with that, and I wouldn’t try to, but all the same I am glad that I got there in time to sit on a battered red seat in a hot auditorium clutching a pint of shandy in a plastic glass. The auditorium is a wonderful space. Some theatres develop a patina in exactly the same way as a fine old piece of oak furniture does, and the Everyman is one of them. It has a proud history and the building makes you aware of the performers and audiences who have gone there before you. I think that I can trust Liverpool not to forget it, but along with the gains that a brand new “vibrant creative hub” for the city will bring there will also be a loss.