Whither the Liverpool Everyman? Turning 60 next year, should it be called that? In its heyday of the 1970s it was making playwrights like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, and a formative experience for Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce and Bill Nighy.
More recently, despite a stunning £27 million refurbishment in 2014, the theater has been less of a name to conjure up with. An attempt to reinvent the acting ensemble model failed after causing a “push on resources” for two years. Now, after a period of reassessment, a new Artistic Director, Suba Das (also responsible for the Liverpool Playhouse), is tasked with moving the mojo.
In this opening move, Das has done something unprecedented. He’s taken Caryl Churchill’s 1982 socialist-feminist classic and uprooted some of the action from Suffolk to Liverpool. This resulted in a handful of adaptations approved by the 84-year-old author, whose father was from the city. References to “fields” have become “docks” and – although not overtly alluded to – we are in Toxteth, the scene of devastating riots in 1981.
These are Thatcherian values that Churchill has in mind in a play in which the woman who was uprooted and went to the big city – Marlene, who recently ran a recruiting firm – faces off against her tough dutiful sister, Joyce, who stayed, and raised Marlene’s child, Angie, as her own.
Angie, played by a painfully eager Saffron Dey, is a bumbling misfit who adores her aunt (as she thinks she is her), but is only greeted warmly when she runs off to see Marlene at her “Top Girls” agency, the boss evaluating her. like the job seekers we glimpse elsewhere.
Likewise, despite all the hard-to-digest stereotypical Tory sentiments that Marlene utters (“I hate the working class…”) during a sibling confrontation (Tala Gouveia and Alicya Eyo stand up for the accusatory occasion), the anti-heroine of Churchill with a man’s world overthrowing centuries of oppression. That battle is given an unforgettably surreal form (with groundbreaking overlapping dialogues) through an opening dinner with ‘fantasy’ guests including the medieval pope Joan, stoned for childbirth, and Dull Gret, a figure from Breughel who took on hell himself.
While the comedic fluidity of that opening night scene wasn’t helped by an understudy forced to step in at short notice, script in hand, Das generally serves up Churchill’s elliptically entertaining material with compact, stylish panache and the oddly evocative period sound. A strong curtain rod, then, although the announcement at the start welcoming us to the “inclusive and safe space” courtesy of “our audience for sharing our values” feels the trop. Let the work speak for itself, the audience also thinks for itself.
Until March 25. Tickets: 0151 709 4776; Everymanplayhouse.com