Theatre Review: BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL – Waterside Arts, Sale

The cast of BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL 2020 Tour. Photo: Ant Robling

Blending comedy and pathos in equal measure, BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL brings Helen Forrester’s autobiographical tale to life on stage.

4 out of 5 stars

Adapting a much-loved book, or series of books, is always a difficult proposition, but in BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL, Rob Fennah has pulled off an excellent job of taking Helen Forrester’s autobiographical tale of life in Liverpool on the eve of the second world war from page to stage.

The play itself starts and ends under the clock of Lime Street Station and takes us from the growing threat in Europe to full-blown war. The narrative rattles along at a fair pace, driven by the central character, Helen Forrester herself, and her dysfunctional family. The first act is concerned with the family dynamics, the feckless and selfish parents and their inability to regard Helen as anything other than an unpaid domestic. The second act concentrates much more on Helen’s actual life, her interactions and doomed romance.

The cast of BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL 2020 Tour. Photo: Ant Robling

Of her parents, her mother is a horror, and this could easily become a caricature of a stage “baddie”, but Lynn Francis treads the right side of the line and gives us a thoroughly unpleasant character with a weak husband.

Helen, portrayed by Emma Mulligan, is a downtrodden scrap desperately trying to have hope and dreams, which are stymied by her family. However, in the second act, we see her finally rebel and become the person she has wanted to be.

The surrounding cast flesh out the play, playing multiple roles, and it is to their credit that they pull this together with a host of characters from shopkeepers, dance studio patrons and office workers. Special mention must go to Lynne Fitzgerald, who has the hallmarks of a great character actress with a deft touch of the comedic. The comedy scene in the hairdressers is spot on and had the audience laughing from the start, as did Ma, owner of the local cafe.

The cast of BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL 2020 Tour. Photo: Ant Robling

Another stand out is Joe Gill as Harry O’Dwyer, Helen’s first love. His ability to convey the weariness of the merchant seamen during the first part of the Atlantic convoys is excellent, and, alongside his simple charm, his character makes a significant stage impact.

The play is atmospheric of the time with a good multi-purpose set, lighting and staging, and the audience is taken from a two up two down to a dance studio with ease. There is pain and joy, comedy and pathos in equal measure and above all, this is not just a story; it is a peak through the years of the love, loss and difficulties endured by a generation.

BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL played at Waterside Arts, Sale on 22 September 2023.