Twopence to Cross the Mersey

Rob Fennah
Pulse Records in association with Bill Elms
Epstein Theatre, Liverpool

Helen Forrester’s tale of her 1930s upbringing is a perennial favourite among reading groups and those folk at the WI. And it’s easy to see why. Twopence to Cross the Mersey is a classic Cinderella tale with young Helen as Cinders and two truly villainous ugly sisters in the shape of her mother and father.

Liverpool’s Epstein theatre is certainly the right venue from which to present this latest adaptation. Sitting in this ornate theatre is always an instant passport back to days which were old, but sometimes far from good.

The set itself is fairly simple: chairs, table and door frames. Simple but effective though perhaps the backdrop might have been a little more adventurous. The Epstein is an intimate space, so whether performers need to be microphoned up is debatable—a case of a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

For the most part, the 2 hours (including interval) whizz by. The cast do a sterling job in their multiple roles. Mr Forrester (Christopher Jordan) and Mrs Forrester (Emma Dears) are a fecund yet feckless couple whose burgeoning brood seem to be nothing more than an inconvenience. Playing middle class frigidity with some aplomb, the audience can only watch in horror, itching to give him a good, hard shake and her an even harder slap.

The supporting roles are earthy one and all. Eithne Brown does her familiar turn as a scouse matriarch—the type who can make grown men cry. And Dara O’ Briain doppelganger Roy Carruthers makes the stage his own in several roles.

The play begins with the family newly arrived in 1930s Liverpool. Mr Forrester, severely down on his luck, is forced to mingle with some unsavoury types at the local labour exchange. “You’re not from round here, are you?” growls one of the many abject characters in the play as speculation mounts that the family hail from Blundellsands—Liverpool for posh.

It’s quite a fall for a family of solid middle class taste and aspirations. Rob Fennah’s script chooses to focus on what is an excruciating as well as embarrassing fall down the social ladder. Young Helen is forced to become a surrogate mother to her many siblings, a state of affairs that precludes her from her dream of gaining an education.

In bug-infested boarding houses a harrowing tale unfolds. Helen effectively becomes the family skivvy with Maria Lovelady playing the role overwhelmingly for sympathy. Bob Eaton’s direction also insists on extracting every last drop of sympathy for a young girl who could teach Joan of Arc a thing or two when it comes to stoicism.

Of course if you aim for Cinderella then there’s always a chance you’ll end up with pantomime. With holes in her stockings, stooping, limping and pushing a pram that seems to have come straight out of the swamp from hell and not forgetting parents with all the empathy of a couple of Great White Sharks, this production certainly tugs at the heart strings.

Could life possibly get any more mundane for this young girl? Tatty, downtrodden and ignored, at times it does all get rather bleak. There are a few laughs during the evening, but none whatsoever from the character of Helen, who might well have benefitted from a little more light and shade in her portrayal.

Overall, Twopence to Cross the Mersey is a fairy story, a tale of triumph over adversity. As a presentation of Liverpool life during the Great Depression, it still has the power to shock.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick