By the Waters of Liverpool – Albany Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Mattie Bagnall

Writer: Helen Forrester

Adaptor: Rob Fennah

Director: Gareth Tudor Price

“What would you do to earn your freedom?”

Helen Forrester’s autobiographical series is well received not just in Liverpool, but across the country. By the Waters of Liverpool accurately paints the picture of her fight for freedom, independence, companionship, and, ultimately, her happiness. Against the rising tide of poverty and war in Europe, her quest for such freedom comes at a price. Forced to relocate following a tumultuous period from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in the South West, Helen’s family choose Liverpool as the destination to rebuild their lives and regain the stability they crave. The biggest victim in all this is a young, impressionable Helen who is desperate to make her mark in life, but is forced to navigate an obstacle course which is beyond her capabilities. What follows is an equally heart-warming and heart-breaking journey uncovering themes of identity and love against a backdrop of Britain at war.

In Rob Fennah’s adaptation of this story, the audience is invited to empathise and relate to the immense struggles that Helen faces, while simultaneously offering a nostalgic trip down memory lane for many of those in attendance. The play as a whole blends both emotional and comedic moments together well. This helps to engage and provide opportunities to empathise with what is unfolding on stage. The first act has more substance as the bulk of the drama happens during this period. The second act focuses largely on the romantic hopes and dreams that Helen has as she tries to overcome her inexperience in this field to fix her loneliness and find companionship. As there aren’t as many layers in this second half of the play, there is a number of pace issues which unfortunately take away from what is otherwise a compelling story.

The design elements are quite simplistic but offer a historical, yet recognisable view of Liverpool. There are some moments which show excellent creativity from the design team; especially when depicting the horrors of the blitz arriving in Liverpool and the atmospheric lights, sound and smoke used to bring this to life.

Emma Mulligan is exceptional in the role of the protagonist, Helen Forrester. With an almost permanent residency on stage, Mulligan portrays Forrester’s struggles with empathy as the state of her emotions fluctuates based on the many dilemmas and moments of false hope that she encounters. Much of the rest of the cast play multiple roles, with Lynne Fitzgerald and Lynn Francis providing many hilarious moments with their subtle but relatable humour for the audience watching.

While this play may have a few structural issues, its compelling story based on truth makes it relatable and thought-provoking. The historical context behind it helps to engage as many can relate to the journey of the protagonist. Despite these references being linked specifically to Liverpool, this is a story that can be enjoyed and experienced by theatregoers up and down the country. The fact that it documents Helen Forrester’s life in such an imaginative and creative way opens eyes in a way it could never have done so off stage.

Runs until 21 September 2023 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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