Writer: Rob Fennah
Director: Gareth Tudor Price
Helen Forrester’s life proves itself to be a perfect source for a heartfelt, humorous, historical drama. Based on Forrester’s autobiography, By the Waters of Liverpool dramatises a part of British history that has been staged many times, urban life during World War Two, but brings to this familiar period a deeply personal tale.
The character of Helen we see onstage is, like many families after the Great Depression of the 1930s, severely down on her luck. Once comfortably middle-class, her father loses it all in the financial crash, and the whole family has to move to a shabby house in Liverpool. Helen strives through the first half of the play to gain a stable job, and in the second half to find love, all amongst the troubles of wartime Britain.
Though always lively, the play suffers from some rather odd pacing; the first half is more than ten minutes shorter than the second, and feels much thinner in terms of story. There are intense sequences of Helen’s stressful working life, and some interesting pre-war discussions on the street about whether or not Churchill is the right man to lead Britain in war, but none of this really feels like it gets that far before the curtain falls for the interval.
When that curtain lifts for the second half, though, the play takes on a new energy. The dancing-class scenes, near-stolen by Daniel Taylor’s fabulously charismatic Mr Ellis, are full of warmth, humanity, and enticing flirtation. This part of the play is populated with an eclectic mix of dialects (not all of which sound quite fluent), and an even more quirky cast of characters. The humour of the second half is much less reliant on crude slapstick, and the romance feels natural.
There are two particular performances that stand out in this production. Emma Mulligan brings real energy and life to the leading role, and Tom Roberts is note-perfect as Helen’s world-weary father. Roberts’ meticulously-tailored costume has the potential to look out of place amidst the descriptions of destitution the family are supposedly living in, but his tired expressions and looks of real insecurity bring a sense that this outfit is the product of a man trying desperately to cling to an appearance of bourgeois respectability. A tender moment late in the play, where he fantasises about what he would do with a million pounds, is played with tangible joy. Mulligan’s monologues feel slightly awkward and insincere to begin with, but by the end of the first half, her portrayal of Helen is by turns vulnerable and joyous to watch.
Though brief, the references to the war are memorable and well-integrated. The audio clips from Churchill’s speeches add to the overall immersion in the period, and the tragedy at the heart of the play hits home because it embodies so characteristically the tragic randomness of war.
Ultimately, this play isn’t going to leave a lasting impression. The story is one we have seen, in various forms, many times before. The first half is slow, and the second predictable, with a rather abrupt ending. But what is here is written and performed with heart, on a characterful set, and features some effective emotional moments. If you’re prone to getting emotional during a performance, I’d definitely recommend keeping some tissues close to hand for this one.
Runs until 30th September 2023, before continuing on tour.