Helen Forrester’s much loved million-selling novels which depict her difficult childhood growing up in post-Depression Liverpool have been popular with readers for decades. Born into a wealthy family and the eldest of seven children, Helen enjoyed a privileged existence filled with private education, nannies and servants. When her father became bankrupt following the economic crash of 1929, the family, now destitute, moved from their comfortable existence in the South-West of England, to Liverpool.
This is where we meet Helen and family. Living in serious poverty, struggling to get by, living on parish handouts and credit; her parents seemingly unable to face the reality of their situation and take responsibility for their poor decision making.
The weight of the situation falls onto Helen. Forced to leave school and care for her younger siblings, used as a domestic slave for her lazy, deluded, snob of a mother, she begins to rebel and fight for her right to have paid work, her own clothes and a life outside of the depressing and cruel home in which she lives. The play follows her journey from early adolescence to early womanhood. From domestic drudgery to first employment and first love.
Now I have to admit I have never read the novels of Forrester so took along a good friend who had. She had loved them when first reading them as a young teenager and they had sparked in her an interest in social history that influenced her decision to study History further and had stayed with her way beyond her formative years. She chatted enthusiastically about the books on the journey to the theatre we took our seats with positive anticipation.
The opening scene established the location quite well. A simple backdrop depicting the Liver Buildings, Lime Street Station and the now bombed-out church of St Luke served its purpose. Side flats portraying front doors of terraces, sash windows, metal fire escapes created the sense of close living and working-class community.
The set was sparce, simple table and chairs around which the family congregated adapted well into the office environment into which Helen would interview for her first job. Lighting depicted the Blitz, local dance hall and dockland road reasonably well and added to the sense of atmosphere pretty much in the way one would expect, but with little imagination.
The cast of nine, with the exception of Emma Mulligan as the lead, all performed in multi-role with energy and commitment but for me, they were let down by a weak script and dull narrative. The first half followed an ‘It’s grim up North’ storyline. Yes, it was hard. Times were very tough for many in a period that followed huge depression and preceded a six-year war. Although I may not have read these books, I did spend 3 years in Liverpool at University and if one thing I know about ‘scousers’ they know humour; they are resilient and charming, positive in the most difficult of times – qualities that by all accounts feature throughout the writing of Forrester. For me, especially in the first Act, this was woefully missing. Characters were bordering on caricature, stereotypes were aplenty, and the chosen elements of the story went from grim to grimmer to grimmest (the grimmest being a narrative that focused on the local butcher’s lads popping over to the local undertakers to practice their necrophiliac tendencies… yes, it was THAT grim)
The second half lifted the mood somewhat when Helen began to build a life for her own self but again, there were gaps in the narrative that were gaping and confusing. How could a young woman with little education suddenly be able to earn extra money by teaching short-hand and typing? Confusion was created over the timeline when the audience suddenly realized that the action had moved back to pre-war times without clear indication.
The lighter more positive narrative of the second half was welcome and appreciated, but not because it was so especially entertaining, but more because it was relief from the dullness of the first. Here the narrative was rushed. Helen works as a trainee social worker meets, fights her parents to be treated equally to her siblings, asks for respect and care and falls in love with Harry. There is hope. There is the naivety of innocent romance. Worry about the uncertain future for these young lovers. I suspect amongst the older members of the audience there was some nostalgia for the good old bad old days of the first years of war and in talking to some of the other audience members the nostalgia was the element which they enjoyed. For others, however, that was not the case. In the queue for the ladies afterwards, much mirth was expressed at just how poor the production was and I realized the audience was very divided. Some gently laughed along with the moments of relief that came along; others were laughing AT the piece and its clumsy, obvious and at times downright ham scenes.
As I guess you can understand, this was not the play for me. Contrary to the descriptions of it in the publicity material of ‘Outstanding’ ‘Wonderful’ and ‘A big sweeping story with real emotion’ I could only agree with one of those and then only the latter and only in part – there was real emotion there for me, but it was, I’m afraid to say, boredom. Had I been sat by the waters of Liverpool, by the end, I suspect I would have thrown myself in.
Reviewer: Lou Kershaw
Reviewed: 22nd September 2023
North West End UK Rating: