When it comes to history, the theatres in Liverpool are so entrenched, so immersed in the ‘pool of life, that when it comes to putting on a production that deals in part with the chronicle of the city, with the fabric of the people who have made the streets and buildings, the city, what it is today then that history somehow takes on a more meaningful and significant expression of artistic value.
Arguably one of the more heartbreaking but ultimately attention grabbing stories to make its way to the Liverpool stage in the last 20 years is Helen Forrester’s tale of life in the city in the book Twopence To Cross The Mersey. The book has been successfully adapted to the stage in the form of a hit musical and now at the Epstein Theatre, it has once more been re-imagined into a straight play.
Starring one of Liverpool’s much loved and hugely admired actors, the tremendous Eithne Browne, the tale of hardship, loss of dignity and strange surroundings will be at the Epstein Theatre from Tuesday 10th March to Saturday 28th March. Ahead of the production I was able to catch up with the woman who has comedy running through her veins and was able to ask her about the seriousness of the play and memories of Liverpool.
Congratulations on being part of the new re-imagining of Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester. Were you a fan of her writing?
EB: “I was very privileged, in fact it was 20 years ago quite shortly, that I did the original version of Twopence to Cross the Mersey at The Empire and I played Helen Forrester and I got to actually meet her. The wonderful thing was it was done for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Appeal and Roy couldn’t be there but my mother who had been operated on Roy Donnelly who was Head of the Trust, my mother stood up at the top of the stairs in her fake fur coat and greeted everyone at The Empire as they came in! It was wonderful, so I’ve got wonderful memories of the original and of Helen Forrester who was very pleased to see my portrayal. She felt it was very dignified and quite true to life. I was nervy knowing that she was going to be there but I wasn’t doing an impersonation of Helen Forrester, I was an actress saying lines and I she appreciated that and there we are!”
So it’s come full circle now to The Epstein, along with Emma, Jake and the rest of the cast as well, that must be quite a thrill for you?
EB: “I love it! Emma and I have never worked together before, we’ve heard of each other and we’ve met briefly and within five minutes of meeting each other, we’ve just had lunch together so that’s great and the young lady playing Helen, we’re looking forward to it already. I love the theatre for that – instant family!”
Am I right in thinking this is your debut at The Epstein itself?
EB: “I’ve worked here a lot when it was The Neptune – I’ve got fantastic memories, although I did appear onstage for Caz and Britney (Keddy Sutton and Gillian Hardie) at The Epstein when they asked for a lawyer for their sketches that they were doing here, I did stand in for somebody for a Tennants Association function, Terry Titter was unwell and so I stood in for Terry but I’m pretty sure I just appeared for one afternoon and worked here then.”
You must have seen so many changes in the city, especially within the past ten or 30 years, do you think it resonates with the time the play is set in?
EB: “I know what you mean, that was a very changing time. Liverpool has been up and down, up and down and it lost a lot of money. That’s a very interesting way to look at it. I’d never thought of it before but when you look at the changes in the city my architectural neck went up – you can’t ask me to like ugly when it’s been done in the name of Modernism or whatever. I just think people deserve better buildings than the ones they are getting. They’ll rip something good down and replace it with something shoddy but that’s interesting. This is a time of change and a very good friend of mine said to me when I was on a bit of a rant, yes but didn’t the people in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds think exactly the same when they saw new buildings going up? So in any time of change, the resilience of Liverpudlians will see us through.”
When you’re onstage now, you’ve obviously you’ve got such a connection with Helen Forrester, with the original play up at The Empire and now this, how does that actually make you feel about Liverpool as an entity, as a place to feel proud of?
EB: “Yes, I do, because I want the story to be told well. This is Liverpool and Helen deserves her story to be told with respect which is what the writers have always done. Rob Fennah is a close friend of Helen’s and he got to meet her and everything was done properly and with her approval, so it has to be a story told well and with respect and it will be. I’m working at home and I love it.”
What is it about this city that produces so many good storytellers then? There’s no doubting Helen’s talent even though she wasn’t born here, shall we say the Mersey seeped into her?
EB: “The re-telling of the tales has always come from the wonderful melting pot that this port produces within its people. My ancestors are all from Ireland, they came Scotland, they came from Africa – we all know that, they came from China, they came from all over. Also, a lot of those cultures are very verbal cultures as well. If you think about the storytelling cultures in Ireland, China and Africa in particular, their stories are told through histories, through voices, through pictures, through art – all of those ways. I find Liverpool, when I Newcastle, when I visit Glasgow, I feel at home there because it’s the same attitude, they are hard places. Look at the culture, look at the wealth of what we’ve been able to produce, I do think it’s because it’s a port, it’s a melting pot. I’ve never been one of those who goes I’m better than everyone else, there are ports all over the world, everyone thinks they are unique, of course they do, we’re not all the same but I do think it comes from the line of history, you must never forget, that’s where the gratitude comes in, this lovely wealth of experience that’s been brought into this city and then it comes out through modern lives, history through modern life.”
It’s almost as if you’re saying that history is constantly evolving and it’s the people who live in the now that make those stories count.
EB: “Yes, I always say to people visiting Liverpool, look up! When you are looking around those buildings look up as that’s where the history of Liverpool is. There are pictures of ships, there are pictures of the arts around the city. The Italian community was huge in Liverpool, the Irish built the churches, the Italians made them beautiful – like the ones around Scotland Road. We must not forget that this is a wealth of different nations and races which have come together in Liverpool, this Scouse, this beautiful broth. Within five minutes, I’ve just done an interview with Shaun Starrs, then with you and then I’ve just heard about so and so and they lived in that house and you delivered papers there. Emma and I have just had lunch together and there were about four huge co-incidences that we go oh my God – you lived there! That’s what I’ve always loved about Liverpool, I feel safe in this parish. I’ve always said I could never do anything naughty on a Saturday night and get a taxi home afterwards – it’s true! As far as taxi drivers are concerned, I’ve been taken care of so many times, I feel safe, in the knowledge of this wonderful family – instant family here already, within a few minutes you’ve got the uncles, you’ve got the wiser, older gentleman, the children are feisty and as brilliant as ever.”
Ian D. Hall