Hope Place at Liverpool Everyman

Hope Place: the Byrnes tuck into scouse and artisan bread

We were fine until he came along. With his history this and history that.’

Sarah and I saw the Everyman’s new production Hope Place on the same day that the European Union’s court of justice ruled against Google in favour of the ‘right to be forgotten‘ by search engines on the internet.  While the appellant in the Google case wanted past financial mistakes forgotten, Michael Wynne’s play pokes around among the kind of things that families prefer to sweep under the carpet.

The Everyman has a reputation for putting on productions that tell local stories, but as Michael Billington observed in his review in the Guardian, ‘you could hardly have a more localised piece than this’. Wynne’s play is set in one of those three-storey early 19th century terraced houses that line Hope Place opposite the Unity Theatre, a five minute walk from the Everyman, while several scenes are set in the buildings which were precursors of the Everyman on the Hope Street site. It opens with a prologue set in 1699 on the misty, marshy ridge of Moss Lake Fields (along which Hope Street runs today), and later scenes take place in Hope Hall (a dissenters’ chapel in 1838), a late 19th century music hall, a Temperance Hall, and the post-war Picture House which preceded the Everyman.

Hope Place map

The 19th century map of the area projected as a backdrop

So there’s a sense of Liverpool’s history (reinforced by the 19th century map of the area projected as a backdrop to Peter McKintosh’s multi-level set), and of the changes experienced by those who have lived and worked here through past centuries, but Wynne’s main interest lies in families – and where the memories – often myths – passed down in families come from.

The opening scene has a touch of Ayckbourn about it: after their mother’s funeral, four sixty-something Byrne siblings have gathered at the house in Hope Place Four where they all grew up. The eldest, Maggie (a great performance by Eileen O’Brien) has lived there all her life, and is the one most haunted by its memories.  There’s brother Eric (Neil Caple), repeatedly phoned from the next room by his wife who demands more whiskey; Jack (played by Joe McGann), once an engineer and now a tourist guide whose stories play fast and loose with the truth; and Veronica (Tricia Kelly), the embittered, money-grabbing sister.

Also there are Veronica’s daughter, Josie, and her new boyfriend, Simon (Ciaran Kellgren), who’s ‘posh’ (he comes from Birkenhead). He’s also researching local history for a PhD.  He thinks the Byrnes would be perfect material for his thesis.

And so we’re off down a path well-trodden through the years at the Everyman.  As Susannah Clapp remarked in her review of the play for the Observer:

At Hope Place you hear the sound of a play hitting a spot, talking straight to an audience. And the audience talking back. … Michael Wynne’s play, set just down the road from the stage on which it’s performed, full of Liverpool names and Liverpool jokes, gets grunts and guffaws of recognition.

As the opening scene unfolded I did wonder whether we were in for another rose-tinted and nostalgic tale of hard-living, wisecracking Liverpudlians.  But Wynne’s script, while still getting laughs out of some of the old cliches (posh Wirral, dour Mancunians, etc, etc) in fact interrogates and inverts the old Everyman tradition.

Commissioned by the Everyman to produce a script that evoked local memories, Wynne has come up with a play that questions the nature of memory – what is remembered, what is preferred forgotten, and what turns out to be false memory. Maggie has lived on Hope Place all her life in the house that her family have occupied for generations. Her mother’s funeral and the arrival of her siblings, along with Simon and his interest in oral history, reactivate memories that each Byrne sibling has buried. For Maggie most of all, Simon’s questions bring the past to life in a way that proves painful.

To begin with, each one of them regales Simon with stories of a carefree childhood. Eric recalls ‘a happy childhood …happy family … We all get on, always have.  Just a normal family. Me dad went out to work, on the docks, and me mum was at home.  Just a dead ordinary family, no big secrets.’  Jack, the  tour guide, ‘part of the number one industry in Liverpool now – tourism’ (who in one surreally funny scene turns up dressed as Sergeant Pepper) is so used to telling tall tales that Maggie retorts, ”I never know if you’re telling me the truth or a story’.  For his part, Jack admits to perpetuating Liverpudlian myths:

I’ve always liked a good tale. ‘I’m not the most factual , but for me it’s more about the experience rather than facts and the honest truth.  I want them to go away having heard the best stories … Maybe I might say that I sat next to Cilla in school. Or Wayne Rooney’s me nephew.  I’m not hurting anyone, am I?

It’s noticeable how each member of the family, when they sit down with Simon and his tape recorder, try to recall – or create – the sort of memory that they think the researcher is looking for.  ‘I’m doing this all wrong’, one exclaims, while Simon challenges another, ‘Is that his memory or your memory?’

Hope Place cover

Hope Place: shards of memory

Bit by bit, Simon’s probing elicits shards of family history and snapshots of how the area has changed through the centuries.  He discovers that the Byrne siblings’ father was born in the largest workhouse in Europe, that once stood on the land now occupied by the Catholic cathedral.  For Maggie, Simon’s persistence begins to unlock her childhood memories, and one specific memory she has long buried.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s production brilliantly captures the way in which, once triggered, memories can flood the present, evoking pleasure or reigniting pain. A question from Simon, an old photograph, or a box of her mother’s belongings brought down from the loft – any of these can suck Maggie backwards into the past.  Sound and stage lighting emphasise the time shift as younger versions of the characters populate the stage, played vibrantly by talented child actors.

I did have one reservation about consistency in this unlocking of Maggie’s memories: at the end of the first part Maggie appears to be falling apart, losing her marbles, as the memories come flooding back.  Condemned to continue living in the house where she was brought up, she resists Simon’s investigations.  Yet, at the start of the second act, she is a transformed woman: snappily dressed, searching the internet on the second-hand laptop she has acquired, and building a family tree around the kitchen door.  Moreover, she’s had enough with ‘fine’, the ubiquitous response that everyone has when asked, ‘what was your childhood like?’  Fine, she says, means nothing more than ‘Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egocentric’.

It’s worth also mentioning here that the second half opens with a cracking scene, a rowdy revue with Michelle Butterly as Lily Lloyd singing ‘There was I, waiting at the church’, evoking the 19th century music hall that once stood on the theatre site.  It’s a great scene, but seems to have very little connection with the rest of the play. It should also be mentioned that Michelle Butterly takes on seven different characters during the performance, including that of the recently-deceased Lottie Byrne.

As the play draws towards a resolution, there’s a great scene in which the Byrne siblings meet once again around the kitchen table and tuck into bowls of Maggie’s scouse – but with the 21st century addition of artisan bread: ‘Three quid. Full of seeds, nuts and bits of wood. One bite and your teeth are across the room.’   I liked that: I wonder if it was a reference to the sourdough loaves from the Baltic Bakehouse down the road to which I, too, have recently become addicted?

It’s now we learn that there is a family tragedy that no one has been prepared to talk about, and Michael Wynne’s gentle satire asserts the importance for a family of confronting the past and distinguishing false memory from the truth.  Because, unlike in the Google case, the truth cannot be erased and, not face up to, curdles.

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