A shuttered theatre, a kidney transplant and pandemic – just three of the unlikely challenges facing this on-off-on-again production of By The Waters of Liverpool, Helen Forrester’s autobiographical story of her largely miserable young life in a Liverpool on the brink of war. If young Helen’s story feels challenging, it’s nothing compared to the staging of this charming production at the pleasingly vintage Gladstone Theatre – as apt a setting as you could imagine – before touring nationally.
Emma Mulligan – playing the young Forrester has a lot of work to do, describing the drudgery and misery of life with a feckless father and offhandedly cruel mother. Brought up in comfortable south-west England, Helen’s useless Dad loses all his cash in the Great Depression and decides the best place to start afresh is in Liverpool.
We see through Helen’s eyes (and hear through her narration) as she’s taken out of school to look after her numerous younger siblings, while her sister is indulged and brother heads off to work. Can Helen find an escape through work, a new dress and weekly visits to the local dance?
Forrester’s Liverpool of the late 30s and early 40s is dangerous, poor and frequently uncaring – anti-semitism wasn’t reserved for mainland Europe, we’re reminded – often a world away from romantic visions of wartime Britain served up in nostalgic sitcoms and dramas. But a career as a social worker and a Prince Charming – Emmerdale’s Joe Gill with a confident turn as her suitor, Harry – give the young Helen a glimpse of a happier, more independent life.
Meeting under the clock at Lime Street and gazing into the shop windows of Bold Street are very human moments that help paint a picture of bygone Liverpool.
Not all of the exposition feels necessary but there are nice moments of a bygone Liverpool – meeting under the clock at Lime Street and gazing into the shop windows of Bold Street are very human moments that help paint a picture of semi-rememebred Liverpool that walk the fine line between romanticism and airless detailing.
When Forrester, script-writer Rob Fennah and director Gareth Tudor-Price detour into the openly comedic – even grotesque – the audience respond. Ma’s cafe and the hairdressers where Helen is transformed from ugly duckling provide two settings where the cast can really get to grips with Forrester’s story, which occasionally risks feeling familiar and melodramatic. When Lynn Francis and Lynne Fitzgerald get going – pushing accents, facial expressions and diction to their limits – By The Waters of Liverpool springs into life.
This is billed as the final ever tour of Forrester’s autobiographical work and that seems a shame. When the run ends – following a whistlestop tour around the country, finishing at the New Brighton Floral Pavilion – it seems like this charming tale will fade away. It may be story of relatively low stakes, but it evokes a slice of Liverpool life rapidly vanishing from lived memory.
By The Waters Of Liverpool
Touring nationally then at Floral Pavilion 24 – 29 October