The new Everyman’s latest production is a superb new play by a local writer, with a cast that includes several of Liverpool’s most talented actors. Michael Wynne’s first play, The Knocky (set on a Birkenhead housing estate), was a memorable success at the Everyman in 1997. He’s since had several plays produced in London, and has written the comedy drama Lapland and the spin-off series Being Eileen for television.
Hope Place is a play about history, or rather histories. It’s an ambitious work that’s interested in the interconnected pasts of Liverpool, a particular area of the city and the Everyman itself. But the main focus is one working class Liverpool family, whose own story is seen as at once unique and typical.
Four brothers and sisters have gathered at the old family home in Hope Place (a real street, a stone’s throw from the theatre) for the funeral of their mother. The eldest, Maggie, has never left the house and the complex ties that have bound her to her parents and prevented her having a life of her own are gradually disclosed over the course of the play. The trigger for the exploration of memories and the uncovering of family secrets is partly the mother’s death, and partly Simon, a niece’s boyfriend who’s studying for a Phd and is interested in recording the family’s recollections for an oral history project. The other characters consider him ‘posh’, especially when they learn he’s from the Wirral (the local jokes veer towards cliché at times but are mostly genuinely funny).
The contrasting siblings are believable, well developed characters, and all are excellently played. As Maggie, Eileen O’Brien has the play’s central role and she gives a commanding performance of tremendous emotional power. Tricia Kelly is hard, avaricious Veronica and Neil Caple angry, tortured Eric. Joe McGann is frequently hilarious as kind-hearted Jack, the local tour guide whose far-fetched stories about Liverpool’s past mirror the falsehoods and misunderstandings that the family come to realise have blighted their lives for years. Emma Lisi is wonderfully lifelike as Josie, Simon’s girlfriend and the next generation of the Byrne family.
Flashback scenes feature winning performances from four child actors, who play younger versions of the main characters. Alan Stocks and Michelle Butterly appear in these scenes as the parents, and also have a variety of other roles in sequences which, while a little hit and miss compared to the rest of the play, give the family’s story a wider historical context: the Everyman’s days as a music hall are re-created, and we’re invited to imagine when Liverpool had a population of five hundred and Hope Street was a rural wilderness.
At an illuminating after-show discussion, several of the cast answered questions from the audience about the play and how they saw their own roles. While they rightly stressed the universality of the play’s central themes, it was very apparent that many of those who’d watched it felt a more personal connection – not least the lady sitting in the front row who revealed that she’d actually lived on Hope Street from 1941 to 1956.
It all added up to a rich, absorbing evening, with plenty of laughter despite the play’s many dark moments. Michael Wynne, director Rachel Kavanaugh and a first-rate cast are to be congratulated on a genuine triumph.
Photos by Jonathan Keenan, © Liverpool Everyman
Hope Place continues at the Everyman, Liverpool until 31 May. For more information, click HERE. To complement the play’s run, there are walking history tours of the Hope Street area on selected dates, and a ‘Page to Stage’ workshop session on Weds 28 May (10.30am). For more on these events, click HERE.