September comes around so fast, the first squeals of the autumn deluge, the days in which humanity’s first natural thoughts are to the dark days of winter that are just over the horizon. It is the autumn that perhaps reflects the mood of aging better than any other season, life in a three month cycle summed up against the flower of youth, the heady days of summer which whispers of all the potential experiences that can be had and the quiet of old age winter, autumn in life is the best we might be able to attain, the final flourish in a life well lived.
It is in Leaf on Bold Street, the leaves of a tastier disposition than the slowly curling brown ones that start falling to the ground as they lose the will to cling on to the branch, that sets the scene for Brian McCann to talk about his latest theatre production, Life.
Life is what you make of it, life is hopefully unique, it is the heartbeat of your time on Earth and Brian McCann has certainly lived that and more in his pursuit of bringing local stories to the forefront of Liverpool theatre.
Over the changing colour of leaves, Brian talks about his latest play, the loss that Liverpool has suffered in the sad passing of one of its legendary heroes Mickey Finn and putting on a play in Port Sunlight’s Gladstone Theatre for the first time.
What’s the musical comedy you’re about to stage?
Brian: “It is Called Life, it’s been around for a few years now, I’ve been dying to put it on for ages, I think it’s one of the pieces that I’ve really enjoyed writing and producing more than any other piece. I’ve been writing for the past 30 years, I started when I was 17, I’m just looking forward to putting this one on again.”
It seems to be a very prophetic title –
Brian: “It was an idea that I’d had for years, other people write differently but I tend to mull over ideas and allow them to build in my head, it might take a couple of months or it might take a couple of years, this one was an idea that I had for quite a few years and its almost a conundrum – how do you put life into a play? I thought that would be great and I had different ideas on where to set it, would it be in a nightclub, would it be in a pub where you see births, marriages and deaths happen within a community?
I thought that everyone could relate to is a living room so the whole play takes place in a living room, we see other places but it’s all set in a living room and we meet the central character – Veronica Shuttle when she’s six years old, at the end of the play, she’s 66, so we’ve gone through her life fairly fast – in jumps, all the audience has to do is sit back and allow the play to move in front of them.
So it’s a nice experience for the audience and when we tried it last time, the comments were great, the audience really loved it. Two of the most surprising things were the amount of people who said they’d just seen their lives pass in front of them, how did you know all that? It’s got key things in it, what we all experience through life.”
People forget that we’re all connected in some way or other!
Brian: “We all experience birthdays, we experience Christmas, we all experience childhood, marriage, death, we all experience holidays.”
It’s an exceptionally good cast – to have Suzanne Collins, the great Lenny Wood, Roy Brandon, Edwina Lea, Lynne Fitzgerald, Lesley Butler and Sam Hellier who you worked with on Moggies the Musical –
Brian: “Sam’s done a couple of tours with me as well as being in Moggies. Any piece of theatre is a gamble, so when you run a small drama company like Active Drama, you can’t guarantee your audiences, certainly when you’re putting on an unknown play. If I put on Down Our Street, we’d get an audience, I’d sell it around schools but with an unknown one that I haven’t tried or not nurtured in theatres for audiences to get to know, you’ve got to try and sell it so I’ve got nice posters, nice publicity, I’ve had to put the best cast together I could get and luckily, I’ve got lots and lots of lovely friends who happen to be cracking actors.
Suzanne Collins is fantastic; it’s going to be a challenge for her. I just can’t wait to see what she does with it. Roy is just a pleasure to work with, I popped over to see him a couple of weeks ago, over two hours later……there was a lot of laughing. Lesley is lovely, I always say every cast should have her in it, she just brings the cast together, she’s so lovely. Lynn is very, very funny and an incredible actor and of course Lenny.”
Lenny is one of those local actors who you just can’t help falling in love with, you just take him to your soul when he’s on stage.
Brian: “Its charisma, it’s that magic that you see around him. It’s not all that often that an actor can walk out on stage and grab the audience’s attention straightaway, almost without opening his mouth. There are a few Liverpool actors who are like that – of course, my mate Mickey Finn could do that, God rest him, he could walk on stage and people would just howl with laughter before he’d opened his mouth, brilliant stage presence.”
It’s the type of play where you’re talking about everything you said – life and death, marriage, break ups, the great man might have been part of it all, he would have taken it all on the chin.
Brian: “I’ve worked with Mickey loads and I’m very proud of that, when I did the full length version of Bully I wrote a part for him and he was brilliant, he was fantastic.”
Getting away from the subject a bit, you knew him very well, the humour in Liverpool hasn’t gone away but it’s had its light diminished for a while.
Brian: “Absolutely, he was one of the legends and he’s not with us anymore, everyone knew who Mickey Finn was. He and I were talking about a project a quite a few months ago and we’d meet here in Liverpool or over in Birkenhead, we’d go in a café somewhere and someone would always go how are you Mickey and he’d talk to them as if he’d knew them, where they were from, when the last time he saw them.”
A sign of a very great man; going back the play at the Gladstone Theatre – is this the first time you’ve put on a play there?
Brian: Yes, I wanted to try somewhere new, I think the Gladstone is a beautiful old theatre and with the history of Port Sunlight, it’s a gorgeous theatre. So I thought, let’s give it a try, we’re only doing four nights to see if we can get a bit of interest in it and see if we can move it with the same cast somewhere else next year or later on. That’s the idea is to create the vehicle and see if it’s got legs!”
It’s surprising that you’ve never done the Gladstone Theatre before or even something in Port Sunlight because you are such a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the history of the area, so the fact that it’s going to be your first time there speaks volumes really about how important this play is going to be.
Brian: “I hope so, I’ve been meaning to write something about Port Sunlight and I’ve been trying to think whether I have or not. Over the years, I’ve had commissions to write about all sorts of things, history of Tranmere Rovers, Birkenhead Priory, Birkenhead Park and the Pyramid Shopping Centre!”
You’re almost like the Merseyside version of Edward Rutherford the author in that you pick a place and make something out if it like he did with Sarum, London and the New Forest!
Brian: “I’ve always said that writing is the job for me, it’s what I do, I direct and produce but writing is my passion. I’ve always said if someone wanted me to write a full length musical I would, anything can be made into a piece of theatre, it has to be entertaining, it has to have all the right ingredients, you have to understand the point of the play. I have written about lots and lots of different things and I’ve been very lucky in that respect.”
This seems to be possibly the most personal play that you’ve put on, Down Our Street which is about the area, Bully is about other people but even talking to you, this seems very personal.
Brian: “I think it’s surprising in that when you write anything, you always put a bit of yourself in it but if you produce something, you have to put the whole of yourself in it, it’s got to have your driving force, something that you are passionate about, otherwise, there’s no point in doing it. Actors who work with me constantly used to laugh at me because every play that I did I’d say in rehearsals that this would be the best thing I’ve ever done. They used to say you’d said that about every play and I’d say I didn’t say that there’d be no point in doing it. So, you’ve got to be passionate.
I wrote the play at an extremely awkward time in my life and it was lovely to sit down at the piano, it was lovely to sit down at the computer and close everything down and just concentrate on this. I wrote about a girl, I think a lot of it is autobiographical, dare I say it and I’m really excited about putting it on.”
I do understand that, I saw the film Brooklyn that came out earlier on in the year about a young Irish lass going off to America and going to find her place in the world but the way in which it was told – I was sat in the cinema watching this film and I’m feeling as though gosh that’s part of my life up on the screen and you write for people, for the audience, for the cast. When you said this was going to be the best play ever – because it will be the best play because it’s you, it’s your life effectively.
Brian: “I’ve often thought about changing my career, looking for a different job but what could I do? I’m dead lucky to write and produce. I set up Active Drama 20 years ago next January; I know I don’t look old enough. I created this company to produce everything that I wrote. I didn’t see any point in writing something that didn’t have an audience. I was writing a play that needed an audience so I’m lucky in everything that I’ve written has been performed in some way around the locality. I’m very lucky in that respect but what else can I do?”
I’m sure it will be a huge success, it’s a fabulous cast, and I wish you all the best for the play.
Brian: “Thank you very much!”
Ian D. Hall