Thursday, September 28

A Portrait of William Roscoe – The Athenaeum

The latest production from ArtsGroupie CIC, penned and performed by John Maguire, celebrates William Roscoe, a renowned writer and one of England’s first abolitionists. Using an array of theatrical techniques including puppetry, physicality and traditional storytelling, Roscoe is literally taken out of his portrait and brought to life in the very building he helped to found over two hundred years ago.

Born in 1755, as the son of an innkeeper Roscoe was of humble stock but with the benefit of education, he was to become a man of learning, able to explore his interests and advocate for a number of causes close to his heart including establishing the original Liverpool Botanic Garden in 1802. A social activist throughout his life, Roscoe became an MP in Liverpool where, in spite of much local opposition, he campaigned against slavery which was ultimately abolished in 1807.

But Roscoe perhaps preferred to be recognised as a historian, poet, and patron of the arts, all of which were to establish his international fame, but it was the shifting sands of global economics that were to prove his downfall, much as we see today with the cost-of-living crisis and recession.

Maguire appears resplendent in costume and wig as if having stepped from the actual portrait hanging at the opposite end of the Newsroom to recount this tale with a variety of props and some technical support helping to bring this illustrious character to life. Maguire is an engaging performer with strong projection throughout although there were a couple of particularly moving moments when I would have liked to see that emotion better reflected with a softer delivery.

There was an adept use of props structured round Roscoe’s books – many of which are held in the library at the Athenaeum – that resonated well with the audience, and I especially liked the hunting tale with the origami bird. Puppetry can work on a number of levels but two instances here – the drunken sailor and the grasshopper – felt too much, not just for the space but in the telling too.

The technical support was all right although not always necessary. Instances where Maguire had been recorded, particularly reciting Roscoe’s poetry, would have been better delivered live in my view, allowing their lyrical quality to embellish Maguire’s considered performance. Although billed as a one-man show, there were some long stetches of narrative – live and recorded – which would be complemented by the silent appearance of others in costume to represent his parents, wife, and business associates for example, if only to provide a visual reference for the audience away from Maguire. The use of visual projection to support the many references to the evolving urban landscape and flora would work in a similar vein, although I did like the roll out map and the re-enaction of the Mersey. Coming in at seventy-five minutes, Maguire deserves and needs some relief from the ever-constant gazing eyes of an audience, and I think subtle adjustments such as these would also benefit the overall tempo.

ArtsGroupie CIC is a community interest company that is promoting and providing access to the arts in the North West and beyond through the development of touring theatre and music productions, educational workshops and heritage conservation projects. Further details

Conceived at the end of the 18th Century, The Athenaeum is the hidden gem of Liverpool city centre, for further details

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 8th September 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.