Rhodri Meillir as Spike in Bright Pheonix
‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’
At the end of the week in which the new Everyman building won the Stirling Prize for new architecture my daughter treated me to a meal at The Quarter and a ticket to see Jeff Young’s ‘love letter to Liverpool’, Bright Pheonix at the Everyman.
Young’s play opens with Spike, a one-eyed, shambling drunk haranguing a sharply-suited woman – a member of Liverpool’s new networked elite, no doubt – who is promoting a vision of business redevelopment for the shabby scene of dereliction that greets visitors to the city when they emerge from Lime Street station. Soon we are inside the building that symbolizes Lime Street’s decay, the derelict Futurist, Liverpool’s first purpose-built cinema, now a mouldering shell in which the only thing that thrives is buddleia.
Encamped in the derelict cinema, kind of Occupy style, are a motley group who were childhood friends in the 1980s, and the play alternates its narrative between the present day and the 1980s in order to develop Young’s theme of a regenerated Liverpool turning its back on the magic and mythic city of the past. Lucas (played by Paul Duckworth returns twenty years after leaving Liverpool and meets up with the survivors of the gang of kids who scrabbled and fantasised in the dirt and decay of 1980s Liverpool. Like Lucas, writer Jeff Young has spent his adult life leaving and returning to Liverpool, most recently coming back for Capital of Culture year, since when he’s stayed.
For the 8-year-olds playing games of make believe by the Leeds-Liverpool canal there are dreams of travel to distant places, re-enactments of scenes from war films seen after bunking into the cinema, home-made planes and fishing for rubbish in the canal (‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’), kisses and fags. They dream of flying, like the wartime bomber pilots, or the old Standard firework that gives the play its title. One member of the gang in particular is flying-mad – Alan (calls himself ‘Icarus’, played by Carl Au with Meccano wings strapped to his back. He’ll come to a tragic end. The other members of the group, who call themselves The Awkward Bastards, are Alan’s sister, Lizzie, with whom Lucas falls in love, Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) who at eight years is already uncertain about his gender identity, and Spike, an imaginative and impulsive boy whose (literal) entanglement with Lucas has terrible consequences. Rhodri Meillir’s terrific, lurching performance as Spike overshadows everything else in the play, making the sensitive but illiterate child, and the damaged alcoholic he becomes, a compelling, sympathetic figure around whom all the other characters revolve.
Carl Au as Alan ‘Icarus’ Flynn in Bright Phoenix
Twenty years later, Lucas, the only member of the gang to leave the city, returns, and is far from being welcomed by the others. Gradually we learn of the impact that Lucas has had on the lives of the others, including a series of tragic accidents that tore the group apart. The survivors of the eighties fetch up in the derelict Futurist, where Lizzie (Penny Layden) is camped out, attempting to bring the cinema back to life and revive the wild, rebel spirit of their childhood days. ‘Do you live in magical places?’ she asks, a question that goes to the core of Jeff Young’s vision in this play. Bright Phoenix has been described as Jeff Young’s love letter to his Liverpool, populated by the kind of people with whom he feels an emotional kinship, and set in a place for which he holds a genuine affection.In a recent interview, Young said:
My favourite people are people who live on the margins, in the shadows that might get overlooked, as you said, misfits, who are kind of forgotten. The play is about all these kinds of people. There are homeless characters in it, people who are rejected by the educational system. The characters of the play, when they were children, were really wild and rebellious. When we meet them as adults; we meet them three times: as kids, teenagers and grown-ups. When they are grown-ups, they’re still as wild and rebellious as when they were kids. They still don’t fit in, they still don’t belong. There’s a sense about it that they don’t want to. They deliberately live outside the system. It’s a celebration of that spirit, a celebration of that wild, anarchic spirit. They are non-conformist, they’re anti-establishment, and quite happy to cause trouble!
In the present-day scenes the old Futurist gradually comes to be populated by a motley crew of anarchic rebels. There’s Spike, learning to read and write, spray-painting poetry on the walls; Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) is a cross-dressing torch singer who observes of regenerated Liverpool: ‘We’ve got cafes. Cafes with chairs outside. You don’t get that in Paris’; and wandering in and out is Cathy Tyson in an understated role as a bag lady, Elsie, who remembers when she was beautiful. She has one great song in the production.
These scenes depend critically on staging that convinces the audience that, amidst the dereliction, there is magic in the air, but it has to be said that few of the sequences really take flight. It ought to work, as Ovid ‘s poetry is graffitied on the walls, as gorgeously-dressed Stephen sings swooning torch songs from the balcony, and Lizzie’s Free Radio broadcasts rebellion across Liverpool ‘s airwaves.
But it never really comes together. The production feels sluggish, stuttering from one scene to the next and between the past and the present. The occupied Futurist seems under-occupied on stage: too few people, too many halting pauses between scenes. The music is good: compositions by Martin Heslop are played with panache by flautist and singer Laura J Martin and multi-instrumentalist Vidar Norheim (who was, the Everyman notes, voted Norway’s most promising songwriter in 2011).
In the aforementioned interview, Jeff Young claimed that Bright Pheonix was a metaphor:
It’s a metaphor for believing in certain values and those values are cultural and about community and that collective spirit. That kind of place is about bringing people together and the importance of the crowd, instead of living in isolation. What makes places like that really powerful is not just the films that are being shown on the screen. It’s the fact that there are 50 or 100 people collectively gathered in there and that matters. The energy of the people together in that room.
The trouble with this production was that the energy and collective spirit to which Young refers just didn’t come across. When the police move in to close down the occupation, you don’t feel any sense of loss. Young has said (in a recent post on Seven Streets) that he wants people to look afresh at their city, and to re-connect with places that form part of his Liverpool mythology: ‘I want people to explore those places and spaces again. To consider what public space is – what is it and how should it be used.’
Dave Sinclair, Bibby’s shortly before closure
There’s certainly a debate to be had about the way the city has changed in the last decade or so – whether it is for the better, how much has really changed, and whether some things have been lost. But, in my view, Bright Phoenix did not contribute very much to that debate. That Liverpool has changed since the 1980s is indisputable. Coincidentally, in News From Nowhere this week I came across a book of brilliant photographs of the city in that decade taken by Dave Sinclair, who was working as the official photographer for the Militant newspaper in the city at the time. His book, Liverpool in the 1980s, contains memory-jolting images of the people, streets, derelict factories, docks and protests that gave Liverpool a very different image nationally in those days.
Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s
In a preface, Sinclair tells how, after leaving Alsop Comprehensive in 1976 half-way through his A-levels, he webnt to work at Kwiksave on County Road, stacking shelves. After three years he went to art college where he learned to draw, but most importantly became interested in photography, initially as a form of note-taking for his drawings. He found inspitation, too, in books:
Liverpool Central Library had a fantastic collection of photography books, and I’d spend many hours after college poring over photographs. Cartier Bresson was there, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, William Klein, Eugene Smith and many Europeans, too, including Don McCullin. Loads of brilliant books taking up some serious shelf space.
I wish those who now advocate library closures could read that. Sinclair became especially interested in Liverpool’s urban landscape while studying. In 1983, he went to Newport in South Wales to study photography and by the beginning of the Miners’ Strike in March 1984 he was spending a lot of time in the Welsh Valleys ‘which was going through something very similar to Liverpool economically, albeit with more hills and space’. Although his photographs of striking miners were being published in socialist newspapers, the college lecturers didn’t regard them as art. So he left, and was soon working for the Militant newspaper, travelling the country documenting struggles and strikes. But he was ciontinually drawn back to his home town where Militant councillors had taken over the leadership of the Labour council, and were coming into conflict not only with Margaret Thatcher’s government, but also with the Labour party leadership for refusing to set a budget. The book contains 160 superb photos taken during the hours that Sinclair spent walking around Liverpool, exploring the landscape of dereliction, but gaining increasing confidence in capturing people.
Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal ’82
In the days before different attitudes toward photographing children in the street, many of the photographs feature children like the young gang in Bright Phoenix – the one above could almost be a scene from the play.
Dave Sinclair went on to work as the official photographer for Tower Hamlets council in London. When he went part-time in 2007 he had the opportunity to catalogue his archive, which he placed on the photo-sharing site, Flickr. The photos in the book have been selected from his Flickr photostream.
Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s
Liverpool has changed – our walk from my favourite restaurant to the Everyman reflected this fact in microcosm: the bustling restaurants (with chairs outside!), LiPa, the street art, the Philharmonic Hall renovation, the huge student apartment block going up on the corner of Hardman Street, and the new Everyman itself. There’s a debate, of course, about how much this is for the better – there may be plenty of new jobs in the city centre in those restaurants, cafes and hotels that cater for the tourists who now flock to the city and the thousands who pour forth from the cruise liners that dock here weekly. Down river dredging works have started for the Liverpool2 superport which will allow access for post-Panamax size container ships, reversing Liverpool’s long decline as a port.
Surprisingly, much of Liverpool’s renaissance – symbolized by Capital of Culture year – has held up, despite the banking crash that started that same year. The rub is that in this new economy, many of the jobs in services and tourism are low-paid, part-time or on zero-hours contracts. But what is mostly taking the shine off the city’s renaissance is the government’s policy of austerity and public spending cuts.
Meanwhile – does anyone want to buy an iconic but derelict cinema on Liverpool’s most mythical street?
The Futurist in 1954
Inside the Futurist today
The Futurist opened on 16th September 1912 as the Lime Street Picture House, an upmarket city centre cinema. Until its closure in 1982, the Futurist was considered to be one of the most luxurious cinemas on the circuit, originally housing a full orchestra to accompany silent films and a prestigious first floor café, with a foyer lined with Sicilian marble. It was the first in the city to show wide screen Cinemascope films. With a Georgian-style façade and a French Renaissance interior, the auditorium was designed to have the effect of a live theatre with rich architectural detailing and plaster mouldings. Now the interior is probably unsalvageable. Whether the façade can be preserved, and Lime Street rejuvenated is another matter. Perhaps we need some artistic and determined young people to occupy it?
And does a building hold the memories of those who have spent time within its walls? Maybe so. I certainly have memories of seeing films at the Futurist in the seventies. But I have even stronger memories of times spent inside another of Liverpool’s iconic buildings, also now derelict, in the 1980s – a building I revisited last week. More in the next post.
Alex Cox gets into the Futurist