SOME facts before we begin. I’ve never read any of Helen Forrester’s books and haven’t had the benefit of seeing Twopence To Cross The Mersey’s musical adaptation. Perhaps that’s a good thing since it’s easier to come to it without prior expectations.
This plays deals with the trials and tribulations of a family hit by the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Set in Liverpool, it follows how they suffer the humiliation of a gruesome downward spiral of debt, joblessness and overcrowded slums. Welfare, what there was of it, arrives through the charity of the local priest, a generous bobby and a regimental grant in a world where the welfare state and NHS were entirely absent. Living off the parish meant just that.
This era of Liverpool life is portrayed as particularly cruel, unforgiving and desperate
So why is there a particular attraction in these dour themes which Forrester seems to excel? Certainly, there’s the tendency towards a knowing nostalgia but this is no rose-tinted lens. In her novels, this era of Liverpool life is portrayed as particularly cruel, unforgiving and desperate. She writes from direct experience of the soul-destroying squalor of the Depression with all its vicissitudes and hand-to-mouth survival in overcrowded lodging houses of the time. Life was, indeed, wretched.
Much of the focus rests with the internal frictions of the family as they arrive and set up in Liverpool, practically penniless, in the search for work following the post-Wall Street collapse and their fall from grace from an upper-middle class lifestyle. It’s a depressing tale. There’s the unenviable search for accommodation (not easy with seven kids), queuing at the Labour Exchange, gradual deterioration of diet, clothes and self-esteem.
At the centre of it all, the heart-rending pressures suffered by the central character, Helen [Maria Lovelady] who is expected to act as unpaid nanny and give up any hopes of an education, let alone a decent future. At first, she grudgingly accepts this though she isn’t really given much choice by her wimpish father (Christopher Jordan) and callously harsh mother (Emma Dears).
The rest of the cast are as versatile as they come. Eithne Brown stands out with a total of nine characters including land-ladies, a kind-hearted lodger and, eventually, a night class teacher.
Jake Abraham, Ray Carruthers and Brian Dodd, meanwhile, tackle everything from dole queue roughs to priests, kids and pilots - all carried it off with convincing dexterity. Lastly, a young up-and-coming Daniel Davies showed a singular maturity throughout his performance.
That said, there are some general observations about this adaptation which didn’t quite fit. The most notable were the reliance on a succession of shortish vignettes which, though intended to move the plot along, came too fast – it gave the impression of simply piecing together the more memorable bits of the book. Also, why all the repeated interventions from the irate piano player to “Keep the noise down!” Some of these worked, some didn’t and I was left hoping for more at the interval.
The second half is well worth waiting for as the internal tensions boil over and home truths begin to bite. It’s also the opportunity for Helen to finally come to life once she realises the bleak future ahead of her if things stay as they are. There are poignant moments as she recalls seeing her own reflection in a shop-window – a down-and-out, in all but name, pushing a decrepit pram. Next, having discovered that she could continue her education at night school, she’s initially put down by the half-crown cost and Mother’s reluctance.
However, fate intervenes and she’s eventually given the break she so desperately needs.
Maria Lovelady’s Helen comes through fighting to establish her own independence with a great sense of passion and fortitude. Consequently, there’s a feelgood ending.
Director Bob Eaton brought much of his long Liverpool experience to bear in creating a piece of memorable theatre worthy of Forrester’s legacy. Given that it was playing to a packed home crowd in the cosy Epstein, it couldn’t fail.
*Epstein Theatre, Liverpool Tuesday 10th-Saturday 28th March. Southport Theatre Thursday 9th-Saturday 11th April. Theatre Royal, St Helens Tuesday 14th-Thurday 16th April. Floral Pavilion, New Brighton Sunday 19th-Thursday 23rd April