20 minutes in and Bright Phoenix seems to be sailing dangerously close to ‘scousey play’ material. Hot on the heels of the pretty uninspiring Hope Place – all pans of scouse and down the bingo – there are moments where you question whether the Everyman has been reincarnated as a scouseploitation theatre: the dialogue is peppered with arlarses and soft lads.
Thankfully, despite some familiar trappings, Bright Phoenix is more than another retread of nostalgia and narrative catalysts. Which is not to say that there aren’t any: the familiar set-up of a group of childhood friends meeting up years after a traumatic event forced their separation is not novel. Quite how they all come to be sleeping rough in the derelict Futurist cinema on Lime Street isn’t quite clear, but the story builds towards a chaotic celebration of the city and people in a hallucinatory crescendo.
While it’s not always clear what is happening and how much takes place in recollection or fantasy, the players sweep us along with them, Rhodri Meilir as one-eyed Spike and Mark Rice-Oxley as the cross-dressing Stephen are particularly engaging, while occasional interludes from Kieran Urquhart as an enterprising scal are always entertaining. Cathy Tyson gets a great send-off, but seems rather wasted otherwise.
It ends in a cacophony of noise that doesn’t quite square with some of the production’s more prosaic narrative and structural elements, but it’s welcome nonetheless. The frequent musical and physical theatre interludes are, perhaps, less welcome as they’re frequently unintelligible. Occasionally, you can see the working a little, but Bright Phoenix rushes on to the next scene before you’ve got time to get tired of it.
There is a kind of Liverpool here that’s more recognisable – ad more welcome – than those same old cliches. It’s loveable, frustrating, self-absorbed, bolshy and messy. There are several shots aimed variously at the soulless gentrification, the identikit city-centreing and empty Capital of Culturing here and it rings true. A city that wears the chip on its shoulder and bee in its bonnet with pride.
The whole is hard to assess, but there are moments of wit, lovely work from the cast and brilliant touches of set design and soundscape. There are some transcendent moments and a thoroughly novel take on a play set in – and about – Liverpool. If there were a magic portal to a Liverpool Past or Below, it probably would be in the Futurist but, for now, there are glimpses of it here on stage at the Everyman.
Until 25 October 2014