The Dome (Grand Central Hall, Renshaw Street)
First off it’s good to see that the Lantern Theatre, which contributed so much to Liverpool’s arts scene before developers forced its Blundell Street venue to close, has returned in the form of Lantern Theatre Productions. And they’re back with quite a bang, staging at the Dome in Renshaw Street this very entertaining (and occasionally shocking) production of Andrew Cullen’s fine comedy. The play was a big hit at the Everyman in 1997 (with a cast including Andrew Schofield and several other prominent Liverpool actors) and this revival shows it still has a lot to offer.
In some ways the new production couldn’t be more timely. Britain’s heading out of Europe while much of Merseyside (including Liverpool) wanted to stay, and for all the talk of a northern powerhouse the sense that London and the south east have a firm grip on the lion’s share of money, power and decent jobs has rarely been greater. So a play about Liverpool saying enough is enough and declaring itself an independent republic is certainly likely to strike a chord with local audiences.
Of course Liverpool has famously always felt a bit disconnected and different, looking out to the Atlantic as much as it looks inwards to the rest of the UK. And it did once try declaring a kind of political independence when Derek Hatton and co ran the city. During the course of the play we’re reminded of the many times Liverpudlians have risen up in protest: the 1912 Transport Strike, the 1926 General Strike, the Toxteth riots in 1981. In Cullen’s imagined scenario a march demanding justice for the downtrodden city snowballs into a full-scale revolt, with Liverpool proclaiming its independence. There’s a brutal response from the authorities, who send in troops, police, helicopters and snatch squads to wrest back control.
The play’s premise is reminiscent of that old Ealing comedy Passport To Pimlico, but the humour here is darker and thoroughly Scouse, full of sarcastic one-liners and put-downs. The main dramatic focus is on one family. Dad Tom, one of the rebellion’s leaders, is a radical firebrand with a deep pride in his city and an encyclopedic knowledge of its history. Peter Washington’s excellent performance portrays well a character who’s hotheaded but essentially a thoughtful, decent man. His daughter Susan (Katie King) shares his revolutionary zeal but his son Ben (James Ledsham), like many of his generation, heads south in search of a better life (when Tom asks how he could leave a city described by Jung as ‘the pool of life’ he replies, ‘The pool’s evaporated’). There’s another fine performance from Jackie Jones as Tom’s wife Kath, an interesting character who’s critical of her husband’s actions. In a funny and cleverly written speech she not unreasonably points out that he’s so much opposed to everything and everybody he should be declaring himself an independent state.
The rest of the ten-strong cast are also impressive, especially Reg Edwards and Curtis Watt as Tom’s pals Macka and Clive (the latter a comically foul-mouthed Catholic priest).
Cullen’s political message is one that many would support, but it’s also one we’ve heard many times before and the play’s main weakness is its predictability. You just knew that at some point someone would sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, and sure enough they did (though in fairness we only hear one line). But Margaret Connell’s zestful direction gives the play an attractively anarchic energy, and the snappy dialogue keeps us interested. Jocelyn Meall’s carefully designed set copes well with the many changes of location, while also incorporating a familiar and ever-present Liverpool skyline.
I’d never seen a play at the Dome before. As you look up from the auditorium you see the ornate interior of the huge architectural feature that gives the venue its name. Built in the early 20th century, this was once the Methodist Central Hall, and it’s very appropriate that a building steeped in history but somewhat neglected over the years should be showing this play. As a theatre it has a rough and ready atmosphere and is much larger than the Lantern’s old home in Blundell Street. The play’s on for a month, which seems ambitious but there was a good-sized crowd on the night I went and the tickets are pretty cheap (£7 – £14). The production is supporting Radio City’s Cash For Kids charity.
Pantomime season is approaching, but if you’re looking for a comedy with more of an edge in the run-up to Christmas this could be worth checking out.
**** Hard-hitting comedy that still packs a punch
Scouse: A Comedy Of Terrors continues at the Dome until 15 December.