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Twopence to Cross the Mersey

Scene from Twopence to Cross the Mersey. Photo: David Munn Scene from Twopence to Cross the Mersey. Photo: David Munn
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Bed bugs, rip-off landlords, squalid overcrowding, hungry mouths to feed: life on the dole in 1930s depression-hit Toxteth must have been cruel, especially for a penniless posh family forced by circumstances to leave their former comfy Home Counties lifestyle behind. And even more so for the bright school-age daughter whose destiny seems to be either domestic drudge or slum mum.

Rob and Alan Fennah’s musical adaptation of Helen Forrester’s popular riches-to-rags Merseyside memoir returned to Liverpool Empire no fewer than three times after premiering there in 1994, which certainly says something about the show’s equally popular local appeal. And now Rob Fennah has once again revisited the book in this more modestly staged straight-play version, without songs but retaining, more or less intact, the resolutely unsentimental story of young Helen’s lonesome struggle out of threadbare poverty.

After a wobbly beginning, when the pacing seems as wooden as the door and window frames dominating Richard Foxton’s suitably sparse setting, Bob Eaton’s production rapidly becomes as grimly compelling as the original book, employing the third person narrative device – and a cast of eight actors creating dozens of slum-dwelling characters – to transform Helen’s journey from hell to hope into the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner.

As things inevitably go from horribly bad to melodramatically worse, Maria Lovelady makes the poor kid’s struggle to free herself from uncaring parents totally believable, although her self-obsessed mother (Emma Dears) and narrow-minded father (Christopher Jordan) seem too one-dimensional, especially considering that this play about taking control of life against the odds is actually about them as well.

Dates: March 10-28, then touring until April 23, PN March 11

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After a slow start, this new adaptation of a popular novel soon leaps from the page to the stage