Writer: Helen Forrester
Adapter: Rob Fennah
Director: Gareth Tudor Price
Reviewer: Charlie Senate
By the Waters of Liverpool is Rob Fennah’s stage adaptation of the third book in Helen Forrester’s widely-read autobiographical series detailing her family’s trials during World War II and the Liverpool Blitz. This is Fennah’s third such adaptation from the same source material, following successful musical and stage play renderings of Forrester’s much-loved Twopence to Cross the Mersey.
Ruined, as were so many, by the 1929 stock market crash, Helen’s family—her mother, father, and six siblings—relocate north to Liverpool. Her father, labelled a hopeless spendthrift, is blacksheeped by his mother and sister, financially and otherwise. True to this characterisation, Helen’s parents pile up creditor’s debt on fine furniture and other lavishments at the expense of essentials like shoes without holes in them and mattresses to sleep on. Throughout Europe, Facism takes root.
Helen, now a young woman, has lately fought for and won from her parents two very dear privileges: the right to educate herself and the right to work. But employment is not the springboard Helen hopes for. Her scant wages are garnished almost wholly by her mother for the household, leaving Helen without the means to better herself even marginally; not even enough to buy makeup or a single new dress. As war is declared on Nazi Germany, Helen can sense her exhausted youth—and even the dimmest possibility of romance—slipping away into spinsterhood. That is until she meets Harry, a ship’s engineer.
The shadow of these dark times still dims the country’s collective memory, particularly in cities like Liverpool where the scars of the blitzkrieg can still be seen and felt. For much of the country, the crash and the war that followed irreparably altered the future that might have been. The influence of these events can still be seen in the present day. This, perhaps, is why the audience hums uniformly with every historical particular. There is power in these details—in government-mandated blackout curtains and gas masks distributed door-to-door—a window into an experience that for many of us is both utterly foreign and omnipresent.
This is a fair adaptation. At times, its near-constant narrative injections, a feature of the ‘story theatre’ approach, bog it down. New characters and storylines are introduced only to be swiftly abandoned. The first half, in particular, watches like a jumble of disconnected anecdotes; but this also gives the play a kind of “that’s life” feel, a warming notion of the haphazard, even in extraordinary circumstances. By some strange alchemy, Ian Scott’s lighting somehow makes this intimate play feel right at home on Liverpool Empire’s sprawling stage. The play is also bolstered by excellent performances, especially Maria Lovelady as Helen.
But it is the subject matter that most enthrals here. Forrester’s account, faithfully represented here, tells an almost unimaginable story, all the more powerful precisely because it happened.
Runs until 13 October 2018 | Image: Contributed