Review – Our Lady of Blundellsands – Liverpool Everyman

Josie Lawrence as Sylvie in Our Lady of Blundellsands. Photo © Marc Brenner

There’s a party going on at the Everyman. It’s a party to celebrate a play back on stage with a full cast and a full audience for the first time since the theatre had to close its doors on the premiere run of Jonathan Harvey’s Our Lady of Blundellsands 18 months ago. It’s also a party to celebrate a birthday – Garnet’s birthday.

Garnet lives with her sister Sylvie in their house overlooking the sea at Blundellsands. It’s clear from the outset that Sylvie is gradually losing her grip on reality; slowly retreating into a fantasy world made up of genuine memories and unlived dreams that are blurring into each other. Garnet has always had to look after her sister but she’s painfully aware that Sylvie is becoming increasingly dependent on her, and now she knows something new that makes the situation even more difficult.

A series of intimacies in Sylvie’s past which she describes as “irregular but consistent” have given her two children, Mickey-Joe, a drag queen whose star has already passed its zenith, and the much younger Lee-Lee, an actor who has found an alternate source of income whilst ‘resting’. The boys have returned home for Auntie Garnet’s birthday party and each is accompanied by a partner. Lee-Lee by the bubbly Alyssa, whose mouth has no emergency stop option, and Mickey-Joe by Frankie, a nice guy with a lot of patience but it’s wearing thin.

Many of the great classics of drama are built around secrets and lies, and as the birthday party gets underway and drink loosens a few tongues, Harvey begins to reveal the web of deceptions that this family’s foundations are built upon. But he is a writer whose skill rests most especially in balancing drama with sharp wit, and the dialogue is so full of one-liners that it has the audience alternately guffawing with laughter and reeling from the successive emotional gut-punches that the story keeps throwing.

Josie Lawrence has returned to reprise the role of Sylvie that she created in 2020. It seems that, after a period away from the text and in rehearsals with some new co-stars, she has found further depth to the character. She also seems to get additional mileage out of some of the comedy in the part, especially in a running gag about a non-existent maid called Juanita. Also returning from the original cast, Nathan McMullen and Gemma Broderick have similarly mined Lee-Lee and Alyssa’s lines for added value. Broderick now quite literally throws herself into a new bit of ‘business’ that ensures the audience all see the meaning of some subterfuge the pair are engaged in.

New to the cast are Nana Amoo-Gottfried as Frankie and Mickey Jones as Mickey-Joe. Not only does Jones’s name sound as if the part could have been written for him, but he succeeds in making it feel that way, and he too adds something extra to the role, notably continuing a lengthy lip-sync routine to cover a scene change that previously happened in blackness.

The last new addition to the ensemble is Joanne Howarth as Garnet. Howarth gives a restrained performance that accentuates the occasional flashes of anger disturbing the surface of the reflective pool of her character. In particular, she brings a new emotional depth to the closing scenes of the play.

Sylvie’s fondest memories are of an artist friend who had once promised to immortalise her likeness in a stained glass window. She has searched churches over the years in vain to find this hoped for ‘Our Lady of Blundellsands’, but now Garnet thinks she has found it in a dream and she asks Sylvie to come for a walk on the beach to see it. The heartbreaking conclusion to the play follows with one last visual enhancement from the opening run, more closely achieving the vision outlined in Harvey’s text.

This is a triumphant return of a play that was robbed of the chance to reach its full audience. Not only does this enable those who missed it last year to finally see it, but it also finds more layers of detail in Harvey’s glorious text, making it well worth a re-visit.

Star rating – 5 stars

Review by Nigel Smith