Whither the Liverpool Everyman? Turning 60 next year, should it even be called that? In its scrappy 1970s heyday it was the making of playwrights like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, and a formative experience for Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce and Bill Nighy.
More recently, despite a beautiful £27m renovation in 2014, the theatre has been less of a name to conjure with. A bid to reinvent the acting ensemble model fizzled after two years having caused a “strain on resources”. Now, after a period of re-appraisal there’s a new artistic director, Suba Das (also in charge of the Liverpool Playhouse), tasked with relocating its mojo.
In this, his opening gambit, Das has done something unprecedented. He has taken Caryl Churchill’s 1982 socialist-feminist classic and uprooted a portion of the action from Suffolk to Liverpool. This has resulted in a handful of tweaks, approved by the 84-year-old author, whose father hailed from the city. References to “fields” have become “docks” and – though it’s not overtly alluded to – we’re in Toxteth, the scene of devastating riots in 1981.
It’s Thatcherite values that Churchill has in her sights in a play that pits the woman who uprooted and went to the big city – Marlene, newly in charge of a recruitment agency – against her hard-up dutiful sister, Joyce, who stayed on, and raised Marlene’s child, Angie, as her own.
Angie, played by a painfully eager Saffron Dey, is a gauche misfit who worships her aunt (as she thinks her), but is only greeted with cordiality when she runs away to see Marlene at her ‘Top Girls’ agency, the boss evaluating her like the job-seekers we glimpse elsewhere.
Equally, for all the hard-to-stomach stereotypical Tory sentiments Marlene spouts (“I hate the working-class..”) during a sibling showdown (Tala Gouveia and Alicya Eyo rising to the recriminatory occasion), Churchill’s anti-heroine is contending with a man’s world, overturning centuries of oppression. That struggle is lent unforgettably surreal form (with pioneering overlapping dialogue) by an opening dinner party whose ‘fantasy’ guests include the medieval Pope Joan, stoned for giving birth, and Dull Gret, a figure from Breughel who took on hell itself.
Though the comic fluency of that scene on opening night wasn’t helped by an understudy having to step in at short-notice, script in hand, Das generally serves up Churchill’s elliptically entertaining material with compact, stylish panache and the odd evocative period sound. A strong curtain-raiser, then, although the announcement at the start welcoming us to the “inclusive and safe space” with thanks to “our audiences for sharing our values” feels de trop. Let the work speak for itself, the audience think for itself too.
Until Mar 25. Tickets: 0151 709 4776; everymanplayhouse.com