Review: Horny Handed Tons of Soil at the Unity Theatre

By Nigel Smith

LIZZIE Nunnery’s latest work for the stage first appeared as a short extract, performed at last year’s Liverpool Acoustic Festival in Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room. Now, hot on the heels of her success at the Everyman with The Sum, Horny Handed Sons of Toil is fully fledged and appeared this week at Unity Theatre ahead of a tour, with venues ranging from St Helens to London’s South Bank Centre.

Over a musical backdrop from Vidar Norheim, Martin Heslop and Martin Smith, Nunnery recites a litany of her own poetry, inspired by the work of Adrien Henri, from whose witty wordplay it takes its title. This is interspersed and blended with segments of documentary footage by Tim Brunsden, in which residents of Liverpool 8 reminisce and reflect on the past present and future of the district, its places and its community.

The work, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the anthology ‘The Mersey Sound’, is a kind of love letter to L8 but with an air of deep melancholy hanging over it throughout. The poetry sings a sad ballad of remembrance with a sense of loss and lamentation.

There is a way in which Horny Handed Sons of Toil resembles Terence Davies’ 2008 film ‘Of Time and the City’, with its images of places and people accompanying the poetry. It’s in the words of the people who were interviewed for the project that the piece finds its lighter, more optimistic view. Their contribution tells of the strength and resilience of the community, often with a smile and a witty aside.

There is both atmosphere and power in the blend of words and music, and the beat and throb of the percussion and keyboards mix with some splendidly bluesy trumpet from Martin Smith. Nunnery’s words are mostly relayed via an earset mike, but occasionally she steps forward to a microphone stand and uses electronics to manipulate her voice, and the work ends with her words drifting offstage with her in a looped sequence.

I’d like to see the text in print, accompanied by transcripts of the filmed interviews, as the documentary aspect of the writing demands deeper thought than a single hearing can offer. Melancholy it may be, but there is strength and hope in this piece, and audiences certainly leave the theatre with things to think about.