Everyman presentation

On Friday afternoons through the summer the Everyman are inviting people to drop in for a back stage tour and a presentation previewing the plans for the new Everyman.  I went along this afternoon.

We began the tour in a deserted auditorium, with the stage cleared for the summer break.  Our tour guide explained that what we were going to see, backstage and below stairs, would demonstrate that the building was no longer fit for purpose (and would be unusable in three year’s time when new building regulations come into force). So the management had been faced with the choice of refurbishment or a total rebuild.  It’s going to be the latter – at a cost of £28 million.

In July the Management Trust heard that they would not be receiving £2.4m towards the capital costs from the North West Development Agency, as a result of the £52 million the government has cut from the NWDA budget.  However, the Arts Council grant of £15 million is secure, and the management hope to find the rest from public and private sources.

The rebuild, designed by prominent theatre architects Haworth Tompkins, will preserve the essential features of the building that Liverpudlians have known and loved for the last 40 years. It will still be a 400-seat theatre, and will retain the distinctive ‘thrust’ stage auditorium, the basement Bistro and the iconic Everyman sign.

Before leaving the stage by the back door into Arrad Street, I turned and looked back: what you see clearly from that position is the old projection booth, harking back to the early 1960s when most of the time it was films that were shown here.  I remember, as a student, seeing Yellow Submarine here in 1968.

Then it was down the stairs to the facilities below the stage.  When Jonathan Pryce arrived at the Everyman 40 years ago, the first thing he did, apparently, was go out and buy a pot of white emulsion and paint the dressing room. “I spent most of the technical rehearsal redecorating,” he later told an interviewer. “Not because I was told to, but because it was such a bloody shithole.”  It’s not a whole lot better now: the dingy and cramped facilities haven’t been updated since the 1970s.  There are three dressing rooms, not small, but if there’s a cast of 17 or so, there might be half a dozen actors sharing a room like the ones above.

We were also made vividly aware of the technical limitations of the present set-up.  Down below the stage it is far from glamorous, a clutter of narrow passageways, cables and lifts that project an actor onto the stage.  All of this out of sight technology will be brought up to date in the new theatre.  For example, the new theatre will incorporate a new fly tower, allowing, for the first time, sets or flats to fly-in. Many touring theatre companies that have wanted to bring their productions to the Everyman have not been able to because of the absence of fly facilities.

The green room seemed more like a squashed kitchenette than a place where a dozen or more actors could relax.

Back upstairs, Pippa Taylor gave us a presentation of plans and drawings of the new build.  Although using the existing site, the new building will extend out into the theatre car park in Arrad Street and into the next door building which the Trust has acquired.  So at last there will be space for vital facilities the theatre currently lacks, many of which will also serve its sister theatre, the Playhouse. These will include: a Youth and Community space for the theatres’ extensive and growing work with education and community groups, which can be open independently over the weekend and in the evenings; a rehearsal room, workshops and offices for production staff; a hub for writers to develop their work; and public and private meeting facilities.

Front of House areas will feature an open and welcoming street presence with a glass frontage, a new pavement café, a first floor theatre bar with balcony over Hope Street, and the well-loved Everyman Bistro in the basement.  For the first time there will be natural light in the Bistro, the result of  heavy-duty glass paving stones in the street above. There will be excellent access throughout the whole building for disabled people –  and for the first time the theatre will be able to employ disabled lighting technicians, as the gantries above the stage will be accessible by wheelchair.

A signature feature of the new frontage on Hope Street (apart from the iconic Everyman sign) will be 105 life-sized, abstracted portraits of Liverpool people transferred onto cut aluminium shutters, which will cast a golden glow and be a representation of the community in which the Everyman has played such an important part.

The Everyman and Playhouse theatres and architects Haworth Tompkins consulted widely with audiences, youth groups, drama teachers, community forums, writers, and actors about the proposed plans for the new theatre, to get a sense of what people wanted to see changed and preserved in the new building.  Materials from the existing building (such as bricks, pillars and columns) will be retained and used in the new building.

Before: the Hope Street frontage now.

And after: what the new building will look like.

Before: the rear of the theatre in Arrad Street.

And after: the extension into the car park area and the heightened roof line, housing offices, rehearsal space and the fly tower.

I took some photos to record the old Bistro before it disappears: the bar area and the Bistro serving counter, and those distinctive lit wall recesses with small plants.

I also wanted to capture the painting made by Sam Walsh of the Bistro in its earlier incarnation.  Sam Walsh (1934-1989) was a member of the Liverpool art scene in the 1960s who lived for many years in Falkner Square and painted portraits of many of the city’s creative talents, including John Lennon, Adrian Henri, George Melly and Paul McCartney.  Walsh’s portrait of Francis Bacon, to whom he was introduced by Liverpool jazz performer, surrealist and raconteur George Melly, was selected for the 1963 John Moores exhibition and subsequently bought by the Walker Art Gallery.

Walsh was a graduate of Dublin College of Art and musician before later training as a teacher and moving to London in the mid-1950s. In 1960 he came on a visit to Liverpool, and like many others who fell under the spell of the city, never left. His portrait of Paul McCartney, painted in 1964, is in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

In 1980 Walsh created one of his most ambitious artworks called The Dinner Party which featured not just friends such as Adrian Henri and Roger McGough but also his bank manager, neighbour and solicitor.

The first memories I have of the Everyman from when I was a student in 1968 – poetry readings with the Liverpool Scene (more usually encountered upstairs at O’Connor’s Tavern), an early screening of Yellow Submarine, and Joe Orton’s Loot, one of the first plays to be directed by Alan Dossor.

The Everyman was born in 1964, when Martin Jenkins, Peter James, and Terry Hands founded a new company on a shoestring budget, operating out of a building that was still licensed by its landlord as a cinema and nightclub at the weekends. Hope Hall had previously been a chapel, originally built in 1837 and later closed in 1853, when it was turned into a concert hall. In 1912 the hall was converted into the Hope Hall cinema, which lasted until 1959.

Knowing that their venue would still be in use as a cinema on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, Jenkins, James, and Hands had to find other ways to draw in audiences. They decided to produce plays on the syllabus of schools within a 30-mile radius of Liverpool,whilst also putting on evening performances aimed primarily at an adult audience.

The first years were a knife’s-edge operation for the fledgling Everyman, with the threat of closure always looming. The company braved intense cold inside and out of the theatre, primitive conditions, cuts in wages, and spiralling debt. But some impressive productions, such as Murder in the Cathedral, Henry IV, The Caretaker, and An Enemy of the People drew in the audiences.

The early years saw the Everyman develop what was to become its own distinctive style in plays such as the musical documentary The Mersey Funnel, written to commemorate the opening of the neighbouring Roman Catholic Cathedral, which  included interviews with local people. The late 1960s also saw a flowering of poetry readings, art exhibitions, and late night film theatre, as well as the opening of the Bistro by Dave Scott and Paddy Byrne, firmly entrenching the Everyman on Liverpool’s cultural map. In the basement of the old ‘Hope Hall’,  with little more than a domestic cooker and a trestle table or two Scott and Byrne turned out food that had never been seen in Liverpool  before at that time: fresh food made with prime ingredients at low prices. The Bistro continues to be highly recommended in every major guide for food and drink.

You can see this photo of the legendary Everyman company in the foyer.  It shows the cast from the production of  The Taming of the Shrew in 1974 and features, from left to right: Kevin Lloyd, Del Henney, David Peart, Nick Le Provost, Stephanie Fayerman, Kate Fahy, Michael Radcliffe, Julie Walters, Matthew Kelly,Nicholas Woodeson, Bill Nighy, Roger Phillips,  Nick Stringer.

BBC Radio Merseyside presenter Roger Phillips who appears in the photograph told the Daily Post: “The one person missing off the photo is Jonathan Pryce, because he was directing the show and it was really a cast photograph rather than one of the company. When I saw him recently he was a bit upset that he’s not on it – it was his company, after all.”  Pryce’s future wife, Kate Fahy, whom he met at the theatre, is featured, as is a young Julie Walters, who played Bianca in the production as her first role with the Everyman. Phillips added: “Almost everyone on the photograph is doing very well but people may not know their names because they haven’t been on television or in films. They are all actors making a good living.”

During the 1970s the Everyman enjoyed a celebrated period with Willy Russell writing a number of plays for the theatre, including Shirley Valentine and the Beatles-inspired musical John, Paul, George and… Bert.  Actors who started their careers with the Everyman included Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Julie Walters.

The 1970-1971 season at the Everyman saw start of a trend, with emphasis given to social plays – productions that dealt with the history, social issues, and life of Liverpool.  Stephen Fagan’s The Braddocks’ Time was a history and mythology of former Liverpool Council leader and MP for Liverpool Exchange Bessie Braddock, set in a boxing ring and – in part – to music. Under Artistic Director Alan Dossor, productions such as Welfare and Unruly Elements continued this trend, which was to reach an apex in the following season with John McGrath’s urban social musical, Soft or a Girl.

The highlight of Ken Campbell’s time as artistic director, from 1980-1981, was his production of  The Warp – a twenty-hour odyssey through alternative culture, using as much of the Everyman’s space as possible: several stages, uprooting the chairs from the theatre and encouraging the audience to sit on unused parts of the set. The Warp was split into ten parts and shown over ten weeks – a soap opera of hippies, wizards, new age cults, and personal discovery.

“I think the most significant thing I did was The Warp – out of all the plays that have come my way I think The Warp‘s the best one. It’s my favourite.”
– Ken Campbell,

Another production I recall from that time was Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, directed by Ken Campbell and Terry Canning.  In this one man show told the story of Hank’s life conceived as a flashback at the moment of his death in 1953. Carl Chase had left his job as a cab driver to take on his first role as actor at the Everyman.

To mark the end of a chapter in the theatre’s history, and to celebrate the start of a new one, the iconic picture of its most famous company of actors has been recreated for a new generation. The new image features the ensemble cast and writers behind the upcoming Everyman Unbound season, which aims to capture the unconventional and energetic spirit of the theatre.

The theatre was substantially rebuilt in 1977, when the new frontage with its familiar red neon Everyman sign was bolted onto the Hope Hall building. It will be interesting to see if the old facade re-emerges when the rebuild starts next year.

The new theatre will extend into the neighbouring building, on the right in the photo above, though the facade will only extend the length of the current building.

Predominantly Georgian Hope Street remains a lovely mix of buildings of varying size and elevation built at different periods – with a mixture of residential, cultural and business uses.

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