What a great idea. The Playhouse is marking its 150th anniversary with a new play which looks back to its origins as a music hall. The Star entertained the people of Liverpool for nearly fifty years, before becoming the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in 1911. Writer Michael Wynne has risen to the occasion with a play that’s imaginative, insightful and hugely enjoyable.
The cleverness of the play is that it works on several different levels. In part it’s a re-creation of an evening in a music hall, with entertainment from a rapid and frequently shambolic succession of singers, illusionists and comedians. But it’s also social history, exploring an art form that Wynne celebrates as one created by and for the working class. And it’s a human drama too, as we go behind the scenes and learn about the performers’ private dreams and heartaches.
An outstanding cast does full justice to a range of interesting, well drawn characters. Presiding over it all is Michael Starke as the Chairman. He’s in brilliantly ebullient form as the show’s wisecracking compere, all the while battling backstage with a variety of personal and professional mishaps. He’s still nursing a broken heart after Ida (Michelle Butterly), one of the show’s most successful performers, fell in love with a Spaniard and left both him and the Star behind as she moved on to apparently better things. But now she’s back for a return appearance. Will their romance be rekindled? She makes a glamorous entrance but later enlightens backstage help Dora (Helen Carter) about the realities of music hall life: ‘Living out of a suitcase, a different enchanting town every night. Bolton, Sutton Coldfield, Aberystwyth…’ A grim pause after every place name comically underlines her point. Self-effacing Dora would love to be on stage herself, and is also edging towards a relationship with fellow dogsbody Jack (Jack Rigby).
There’s a fine performance from Eithne Browne as Ellen, a veteran act who’s been morbidly predicting her own imminent demise for the last thirty years. Also superb is Kevin Harvey’s cheerfully malevolent Mr Charles, a mysterious, unpredictable drunken toff. Whether performing conjuring tricks (which include convincingly turning himself into a chair) or swaying alarmingly from side to side without falling over, he compels your attention every time he’s on stage. He’s also a rapacious capitalist (depicted as a forerunner to those we’re so familiar with today), and his sinister intentions are gradually revealed as the plot develops. The hapless Arthur Crown (Danny O’Brien) is a less substantial character, primarily – as his name implies – in the play for comic effect. But his error-strewn attempts at being a strong man, a memory man (inevitably he forgets his lines) and a human billiard table are very funny and illustrate the bizarre variety of music hall acts.
The songs, which range from the well-known to the obscure, are very well chosen and dovetail neatly with the plot and the play’s more serious intentions. When heard in its entirety, you realise Don’t Dilly Dally (‘My old man said follow the van…’) is a song about a family’s night-time flit because they’re behind with the rent. Another example of laughter in the face of adversity is the ironically titled The Rest Of The Day’s Your Own, a song I’d not heard before about the grinding demands of agricultural labour. In contrast, Champagne Charlie and Burlington Bertie (‘I rise at ten thirty’) mock the very different lives led by the idle rich.
The play is not without flaws. Wynne sometimes seems to be trying to do too many things at once, and the rapid scene changes are occasionally a little clumsy. But both of these blemishes arise from the play’s ambition. Some of the weaker jokes could be taken out, and there’s a sense of lost momentum in the early part of the second half. But things soon recover and the last twenty minutes are triumphant and heartwarming.
The play deserves a wider audience and if its local references are tweaked I’m sure The Star could be a hit in any part of the country. But we’re privileged to be the play’s first audience and I’d urge you to see it.
***** The feelgood show of the year – the audience loved it
Photos: Robert Day
The Star is at the Liverpool Playhouse until 14 January 2017. For more information, click HERE.