“It’s Twopence On Steroids”: Rob Fennah on By The Waters Of Liverpool

Full Cast In Costume BTWOL enhanced
Date: 01/10/2018

Rob Fennah tells Tilly Marsh about a chance encounter, his friendship with Helen Forrester and on adapting her work into a brand new production, By The Waters of Liverpool.


When Rob Fennah was handed a book by a receptionist at a radio station, he could hardly have anticipated it would change the course of his career. Having already enjoyed success in the music industry with Wirral band Buster and Alternative Radio, and having co-written the musical First Night, the book would de dictating the course of his life decades later.

“The receptionist recognised my northern accent and said ‘here, you will love this take it home with you’.”

“There’s a line in the book where Helen describes her father as a “butterfly in the rain, wherever he works he can’t fly” and I thought that was a beautiful image. It stuck with me, like Elton John with Candle In The Wind.”

At the time Fennah was producing an album with Rick Wakeman and the pair went on to write a song based on Forrester’s words for cancer charity Roy Castle.

Stageplay writer Rob Fennah with Author Helen-Forrester

“It was forgotten about after that until a friend of mine told me the author, Helen Forrester, would be coming to town and would you play it?

Having played the song for Forrester, Fennah was intrigued to learn nobody has ever taken the opportunity to put her work on the stage.

“I asked if I could make her book into a musical play; she said if she could use my song to promote her book then she’d give me an option period on developing a script.”

The resulting production was a huge hit and has been a perennial favourite at The Liverpool Empire for two decades. Forrester came to see the first incarnation of Twopence at The Empire and loved it, giving her blessing to several subsequent stagings.

“By The Waters is like Twopence on steroids.”

Following success with Twopence as a musical and subsequently as a straight play last year – 26,000 people viewed the latter – there was a clear audience for the sequel, By the Waters Of Liverpool.

The final part in a Forrester’s autobiographical trilogy, By The Waters Of Liverpool is preceded by Twopence to Cross The Mersey and Liverpool Miss. All detail Forrester’s hardships in working-class Liverpool during the early part of the 20th Century and through the Great Depression.

Whilst the Twopence musical covered the early years of Forrester’s life, moving from the South of England to Liverpool, this new straight play incorporates aspects from second and third books, covering Helen’s mid teens to her late 20s.

The cast is set feature familiar faces as seen in Twopence and Liverpool’s theatres; Mark Moraghan played the role of the father in 2007, and was previously known for roles in Coronation Street and Brookside.

The Forrester Family in costume - credit Alan Fennah

Maria Lovelady, returns to play Helen Forrester, while Emma Dears, known for performances in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables on the West End plays Helen’s mother. Nathan McMullen and Emily Hughes – most recently part of the Everyman Theatre‘s rep season, also join the cast.

The sequel will return to The Empire on 3 October, a venue with which Fennah is familiar, having been a de facto home for the Twopence musical. And despite its intimidating size, the writer was keen to ‘go big or go home’.

“It’s the largest two-tier in Britain, hosting up to 2,300 people, and we have to try and fill it out for 13 nights!

“It’s frightening but The Empire is a beautiful theatre. When you think of how many greats have stood on that stage – from Paul McCartney to Laurel & Hardy – it is a fantastic buzz.”

“And we have fantastic cast of 10 people playing 60 characters. It’s a big, big show.”

Having been friends with Forrester until the end of her life in 2011, Fennah is keen to reassure audiences the play does not stray far from the books.

By The Waters of Liverpool

“I can imagine Helen stood over me saying “Remember Rob, this is my life!”

Fennah received the blessing of Forrester’s family to take on another of her books and will view the new production, having been delighted by his adaptation of Twopence.

But Fennah warns the production is hard-hitting and explores unsavoury issues from a Great Britain on the verge of war that still holds relevance today.

“What’s important is that i have been entrusted with her (Helen Forrester’s) life work and i’m now the custodian and must do it justice.

“By The Waters is like Twopence on steroids.”

By The Waters Of Liverpool runs at The Liverpool Empire from 2-13 October

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