Can everything in life be reduced to a zero-sum game? Gain here; lose there? Have this; forego that? That’s the proposition of Lizzie Nunnery’s The Sum in this fourth production with the Everyman’s repertory company. Hearing hard-working Scouse Mum Eve tot up her weekly spend it’s easy to believe, in these straitened times, it’s hard reality for many.
The multi-talented Nunnery is an accomplished singer-songwriter with several impressive plays starting life at Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse. Her most recent, Narvik, was a beautiful fusion of her skills and they’re both in display in The Sum – a ‘play with songs’ that skilfully blends a handful hard-times references with a dash of La La Land, shot through with Liverpudlian spirit.
Laura Dos Santos’ Eve juggles her genial but feckless partner, fading Mum and troubled teen at home but she also holding the fort at work, where a local department-store empire is on its last legs.
Through her talent for watching the pennies she’s helped keep both afloat, but the walls are closing in: austerity, Brexit and a benefits system that seems to be designed to frustrate. It’s a zero-sum game in a zero-hours landscape.
With no work available Eve finds the only way to pay for something is to sell something, whether that means jewellery or her body: nude selfies pay for a roast; a webchat clears the credit-card bill. Meanwhile Mum Pauline Daniels is succumbing to dementia; daughter Lisa (Emily Hughes) is a social outcast and partner Danny (Liam Tobin) has spent the last of the cash.
Eventually, faced with eviction, it comes down to life with her partner or a fresh start with her old boss in leafy Cheshire; the protagonists find that a stiff upper lip and buggering on have their limits.
References to Jo Cox, Donald Trump, foodbanks and cyberbullying place The Sum firmly in the modern day. It’s a very Liverpool play too, scattered with the city’s vernacular and attitude: there are inflections of Alan Bleasdale and Carla Lane (surely referenced in the unseen ‘teak-tan Tina’) in the combination of humour and despair.
Throw in the musical numbers – variously touching and amusing, including a celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s death – and it’s a rich mix. Patrick Brennan’s character Alan gets the standout moment, making a spotlit stage of his showroom as he serenades Eve. Nunnery and her husband Vidar Norheim construct a soundtrack that is organic, complementary.
All the 12-strong cast have moments to shine and it’s to their credit and Nunnery’s that none of them feel like scouse archetypes. But if The Sum has a problem is that Eve isn’t especially likeable. She’s brittle and snobbish – a martyr to herself, as best mate Steph points out.
The play culminates in full-on Republic Of Liverpool defiance at a rally to support the NHS, with Eve delivering what may as well be an election speech. It’s classic Everyman and that feels fair enough, but your mileage may vary.
In fairness there are no easy answers proffered here, merely an equation to grapple with. The Sum doesn’t add up to its constituent parts but maybe it’s the working out that’s important.
Until 20 May