Review: Twopence To Cross The Mersey (Epstein Theatre, Liverpool)

Helen Forrester’s autobiographical work Twopence To Cross The Mersey has been hugely successful, both as a book (published in 1974) and as a stage musical (which had four separate runs at the Empire). Now writer Rob Fennah and director Bob Eaton have turned it into a straight stage play. The result is a skilful, absorbing adaptation that could well prove as popular and enduring as previous versions of the story.

The beginning of the play is eerily reminiscent of the present day. The country is facing an economic crisis and we hear a disembodied voice insisting that the national budget must be balanced, regardless of the sacrifices this might entail.

But a series of short, powerful scenes quickly plunges us into a Britain where poverty and deprivation were more severe and more widespread than today. The setting is 1930s Liverpool, and the play’s focus is the Forrester family, recently arrived in the city. The father, once a prosperous businessman but now bankrupt, has moved his wife and five children from the Home Counties to the north, where he’s confident he’ll find work (not his first foolish mistake). Soon they’re living in a squalid, bug-infested boarding house, where twenty people share the bathroom.

It’s been said that Forrester’s original book helped establish the ‘misery memoir’ genre, and there’s certainly little sentimentality in her portrayal of Liverpool and of her own family. Her mother’s cold and selfish, while her weak, ineffectual father isn’t much better. They sleep in a bed while their children have to lie on an old door, and they insist Helen, who’s not yet 14 and wants to continue going to school, stays at home to look after the younger children, even though neither parent has a job. When she wins an art scholarship they make sure she doesn’t find out. There are other unsympathetic characters, including a bullying lout at the labour exchange and an avaricious landlady who charges an extortionate rent and fixes the gas meter so it has to be continually fed with money. But there are also occasional glimpses of humanity, such as the old man who encourages Helen’s educational aspirations and the kindly policeman who arranges for a daily bottle of milk to be delivered to the family at his own expense.

The misery, which can seem a bit relentless (in fairness that’s how it must have been for the family as well), is also relieved by occasional humorous episodes and some funny lines (‘We’re all in the same boat.’ ‘Yes, the Titanic.’).

There are one or two loose ends in the plot. It’s never entirely clear how the family manage to pay their weekly rent of 27 shillings (at a time when average rents were less than half that), and while later in the play Helen’s mother appears to get a job, we hear little about this. Helen has an estranged grandmother who lives on the Wirral, and says she has happy memories from her early childhood of every railway station ‘from West Kirby to Hoylake’ – not too difficult, as they’re adjacent stops!

But there’s not a single weak link in the cast, who are uniformly excellent. Maria Lovelady, who’s rarely offstage, gives a stunning performance as Helen, captivating the audience as her moods alternate between hope, rage and despair. The youngest member of the cast, Daniel Davies, is wonderfully convincing as her younger brother Alan, confused by the family’s plight but touchingly loyal to his father. Emma Dears as the self-centred, self-pitying mother is suitably chilling, and Christopher Jordan is completely believable as her husband – portrayed as a rather dim man who finds himself hopelessly out of his depth. But everyone’s good, not least because most of the actors take on several parts and do so with impressive skill and versatility. The audience especially warmed to Eithne Browne, who has some comic moments and is able to switch effortlessly from mean-spirited landlady to friendly neighbour.

The strikingly simple but effective set (designed by Richard Foxton) comprises windows, door frames and a few pieces of furniture in front of a silhouette of the Liverpool skyline. It suggests an absence of material comforts while also being adaptable enough for the play to transport us to a range of locations, including Lime Street station, the Pier Head and Sefton Park.

Twopence To Cross The Mersey tells a tale that over the years has gripped millions of readers and theatregoers. This new adaptation does it proud, and should prove another resounding success.

Photos by David Munn Photography

Twopence To Cross The Mersey continues at the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool until 28 March, and can then be seen at: Southport Theatre (9 – 11 April), St Helens Theatre Royal (14 – 16 April), Floral Pavilion, New Brighton (19 – 23 April).