Started in 2003 to celebrate the links between Liverpool and Ireland, the Liverpool Irish Festival has always been a highlight of the city’s cultural calendar, bringing a range of arts, literature, film, music, and drama. However, it is unlikely that any year has been as challenging as this one, with venues closed, social distancing, and so on.
Drama is one of the areas most affected by the restrictions, unless the company has access to the type of technology that has been used in the recent streaming for cinema of productions by, for example, the National Theatre and the RSC. However, the online performance of Mrs Shaw Herself, by the Wirral-born writer and musician Helen Tierney, who plays the harp in the change from one ‘scene’ to another, and co-devised with Alexis Leighton, who plays Charlotte Shaw, showed how to make a virtue of necessity with a compelling performance.
I confess, I was woefully ignorant about Charlotte, wife of the far more famous George Bernard Shaw. This brief but intense review of her life shows how much more widely she deserves to be known. A wealthy heiress, she was unconventional in many aspects of her life – not least for not wishing to get married and have children – but used her wealth to champion women in education and particularly medicine. However, compared to her husband, she was a very private person.
The play reveals her character through using not only her own words, taken from her diary entries and letters, but also those of others, including Beatrice Webb, who introduced her to Shaw, T E Lawrence, and G B Shaw himself. These words are delivered by Leighton who, restricted to remaining in exactly the same spot due to the limitations of Zoom, manages to convey the change from one character to another through change in accent or the judicious use of simple props. Indeed, the restrictions make her ability to convey such intense emotions with poignancy and depth even more remarkable. Throughout, Tierney plays the harp to indicate the change from one ‘scene’ to another, which not only helps clarify the action but also reminds us of how both Shaw and Charlotte were formed by their Irish background.
Should you be fortunate enough to catch a recording of it online, please consider making a donation, and check out the other offerings of the Liverpool Irish Festival. In times like these, we need all the heroes we can get, and Charlotte’s philanthropy makes her story particularly relevant today.
Reviewer: Johanna Roberts
Reviewed: 21st October 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★