Twopence to Cross the Mersey
Helen Forrester, adapted by Rob Fennah
Pulse Records Ltd in association with Bill Elms
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With the country and indeed the world facing unparalleled problems, many people have been yearning for life as it used to be. The cost-of-living crisis and energy supply issues have meant that families have had to make cutbacks. For some members of society, making ends meet has become a difficult if not impossible task.
So a revival of Twopence to Cross the Mersey could hardly be more prescient. Helen Forrester’s autobiographical work is set in the early 1930s when the Great Depression proved even more challenging than the predicament Britain is enduring in 2022.
The play starts with Helen’s father being declared bankrupt, forcing the family to leave their comfortable, middle-class house with servants and nannies in the Home Counties.
Helen, her parents and six siblings catch a train to Liverpool, hoping to maintain their lifestyle in a different part of the country. When Helen’s father was a boy, his dad had made his money in Liverpool which had been a thriving port. But, much to their shock and dismay, the city was on its knees, suffering even more hardship than many other areas of the country.
Rob Fennah’s adaptation does not hold back in detailing the squalor, poverty and depressing environment that the Forresters faced on moving to the north west.
The story is told mainly through Helen herself, played delightfully by Jenny Murphy who is totally credible as a 12-year-old girl at the start of the play. On witnessing her parents’ inability to manage the family’s finances and look after the rest of their children, she becomes progressively stronger as she refuses to accept the position in life that is mapped out for her.
Murphy excels when she rejects the accepted view that girls do not need a job because they will get married. She rebels against her parents treating her as an unpaid housekeeper and demands that they pay for her to be educated, like the rest of her siblings.
There are also excellent performances from Mark Moraghan and Lynn Francis as Helen’s parents.
Moraghan thrives in the role of John Forrester who changes from a cheery idealist waiting for his shares to recover when the markets pick up to a broken man who accepts that even someone with his background and experience is unable to get a job.
Francis succeeds in presenting Helen’s mother as a “worthless spendthrift” who is inept at looking after her family and totally selfish. She does not get a single shred of sympathy from the audience for her plight.
Nine actors portray more than 40 characters, effortlessly differentiating between them in scenes ranging from dingy accommodation and the labour exchange queue to a train and the city’s docks.
Gareth Tudor Price directs with an assuredness that comes from knowing Helen Forrester’s work well, although there are times when an injection of pace might detract from the desolation unfolding before us.
There is no doubt that Twopence to Cross the Mersey has the ability to shock. The play has a bleakness that some people may find difficult to compute, especially when Helen reveals they are so poor that she has not had a change of clothes for months. But there is also a feeling of optimism, however misplaced that might be, that should give people in today’s exacting times a glimmer of hope for the future.
Reviewer: Steve Orme