Review by Nigel Smith
IT is almost 2 years since Rob Fennah’s adaptation of Helen Forrester’s By the Waters of Liverpool had its world premiere at Liverpool Empire. Now embarking on a major tour, the show benefits tremendously from the intimacy of a smaller auditorium.
Although it bears the title of the third novel Helen Forrester’s autobiographical quartet, the play contains material from all four books, including references to Twopence to Cross the Mersey, to which Fennah has previously brought to the stage in both musical and straight theatrical versions.
Setting a story like this one for the stage is a tricky business. It spans a broad time period, from the stock market crash of 1929 through to the Second World War, and therefore has to propel its audience through the decades at speed to cram it all into a single evening of theatre. To do this Fennah employs a method he refers to as ‘Story Theatre’, in which the actors use direct address to the audience, effectively reciting passages of description from the novels, and characters tell us who they are and what they are doing.
At first this technique can feel strangely alienating, but it undeniably manages to deliver a lot more storytelling than could be achieved with straight dramatisation. The alternative would have been to cut out a great deal of the detail, which Fennah was loath to do, having worked closely with the author over the years and having the desire to present the material as faithfully as possible to her words.
Since its initial run at the Empire the play has undergone substantial development, sharpening up the delivery significantly, especially in the second act. In particular, the closing scenes have been tightened to allow the hammer blow of the story’s ending to land much more convincingly than before. It is a story about family tensions and loyalty, self-sacrifice and, ultimately, great personal tragedy. The local detail, including familiar names of places, people and businesses from Liverpool’s past, raises a strong reaction from the audience, and it will be interesting to learn how this fares further afield as the show tours the country.
A cast of nine play multiple roles, with the narration helping to separate them from each other. The weight of the story is carried by Lucy Dixon who plays Helen Forrester herself, with great poise and charm. It’s a sincere and affectionate labour of love from all concerned, and tells Helen’s story with a very warm heart.
After this brief run at the Floral Pavilion, By the Waters of Liverpool tours a further 16 venues, among which is a week at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre in May.
Star Rating: 4 Stars