A Liver Birds musical? It seems fitting that Carla Lane’s famous duo – seen most frequently in the 70s and again in an ill-advised reunion in the 90s – get the theatrical treatment, approved by Lane herself prior to her death in 2016, in the shape of Liver Birds Flying Home.
Written by Barb Jungr, George Seaton and Linda McDermott, with lyrics by Junger and music by Mike Lindup, this new musical is well in keeping with The Royal Court’s stock-in-trade. Laugh, love and Liverpool are the identifiable ingredients, but there’s a bittersweet quality to this sequel that, appropriately, feels rather more grown up than the TV series.
The Liver Birds themselves, Sandra and Beryl, have a chance encounter, decades after the former set off to seek fame and fortune and London, leaving the latter jobless, with a baby on the way and no fella. And their relationship is not what it once was.
Seeing the two mature women, nearing pensionable age, try to make sense of their lives, the passage of time and relationships through the prism of their friendship is an engaging but surprisingly melancholic watch.
The audience also sees the girls as they were in their flat with the red-and-blue door, facing the start of the 1970s with hope, aspirations and anxiety, as Beryl embarks on a journey to being a biscuit impresario and Sandra dreams of a world beyond Liverpool.
Lesley Molony and Joanna Monro will play the older Beryl and Sandra respectively, with Lucinda Lawrence and Nicola Munns as their younger selves. Mark Rice-Oxley plays Sandra’s son as well as other cameo roles, including a startling cameo that sees his clad only in biscuits and a pair of Y-fronts.
By the time the two older Birds are reunited on Huskisson Street the pair have been estranged for years. Needless to say they’re both harbouring an explosive secret they’ve kept from one another – and their nearest and dearest.
The two reminisce, reproach and catch-up in a touching and amusing exploration of age, the passage of time and even mortality. If this is surprising then perhaps it shouldn’t be. Carla Lane’s work always came with a hefty wallop of sentiment and melodrama and so it proves here.
There are laughs – and joyous songs. But they punctuate the overall narrative rather than providing a continuous soundtrack. Also making frequent appearances are a number of songs, which flesh out the character’s motivations and feelings, particularly towards one another.
Needless to say there’s a song about Liverpool, which doesn’t amount to much more than a list of landmarks. It’s one of several references to the city’s physical and cultural heavy-hitters, using simple but effective backdrops by Mark Walters on the double-decker set that include the Sefton Suite at the Adelphi – once glorious, now faded – and a broken biscuits counter at Lewis’s.
The pathos bound in in these observations is where Liver Birds Flying Home really works, blending sadness and smiles – though audiences expecting to see a rip-roaring, thigh-slapping night at the theatre might be disappointed. It’s not the sitcom many will remember.
As a change of pace to the frequent raucous fare at the Royal Court, Liver Birds Flying Home is most welcome: a surprisingly moving portrait of womanhood and ageing, with just enough humour and warmth to sweeten the pill.
Liver Birds Flying Home
Until 12 May