Helen Forrester’s memoir of growing up in Liverpool in the 1930s, ‘Twopence To Cross The Mersey’, was, and still is, a best-selling book and in the 1990s, it was turned into a play with music by the Fennah Brothers, Rob and Alan, better known as Alternative Radio. The show has done very well in the city, but unlike ‘Blood Brothers’, it hasn’t repeated its success elsewhere. Now it is back for its fourth run at the Liverpool Empire. I saw it first in 2004 and this production, with its mostly Liverpool cast, is better and received a standing ovation.
The cast is very strong indeed – good actors who possess good singing voices. The most demanding role goes to Jamie Clarke, who imbues the young and feisty Helen with both a sense of duty and an independence of spirit. She has a very winning personality and the audience immediately warm to her. Perhaps it’s significant that her father is that most lovable of actors, Michael Starke.
Pauline Daniels plays her older self, commenting on the action, although they look nothing like two versions of the same person.
Her father is played by Mark Moraghan, well known to viewers of ‘Brookside’ and ‘Holby City’ as well as doing well in that reality TV show, ‘Just The Two Of Us’. The bankrupt and broken father copes with one indignity after another but manages to hold the family together.
Helen’s feckless mother is played by Emma Vaudrey. This is an unsympathetic role as she seems more concerned with her next cigarette or a new pair of stockings than the welfare of her seven children.
|"Despite the title, nobody in the play goes across the Mersey."|
The smaller roles are well cast and it comes as a surprise to find Andrew Schofield in a cameo role as a cheerful labourer in the dole queue. The gritty humour offsets much of the play’s misery, but I felt that the audience was laughing too easily. Why is it funny to call someone a “fat arse”?
Candida Boyes’ set, covered with period images, is very effective and the band includes both the Fennah Brothers and Karl Lornie.
Ian Kellgren’s direction is a little static as surely the seven children would be livelier and more uncontrollable, and just why does everybody stand to attention when they sing? There is no passion in these songs and no choreography. ‘Shadowland’ sounds like a ‘Les Mis’ reject, while you can sing ‘Forever Autumn’ over the overture at the start. The lyrics are Christmas cracker homilies and lack the incisiveness and breadth of those in ‘Blood Brothers’.
Although the production lasts two and a half hours, there are several loose ends in the script, an indication, perhaps, that it has already been cut down. Despite the title, nobody in the play goes across the Mersey: we don’t find out why Helen’s grandmother was not prepared to use her wealth to help the family, and just what is the significance of the painting that they carry around from one fleapit to another?
The ending was unresolved: by educating herself, Helen became a best-selling writer. Surely the Pauline Daniels character should have alluded to this? Otherwise, we don’t know that she was successful.
What did the other children think of her portrayal of her parents, especially her mother, in such a critical light? I wanted to shout out, “What about Edward?” as this poor kid was in a pram for the whole two years of the play’s action. Didn’t he ever grow up?
Although this review has been somewhat critical, ‘Twopence To Cross The Mersey’ is still a good night out and we learn just how difficult living could be in the 1930s.