Theatre Review: Helen Forrester’s Twopence To Cross The Mersey – Epstein Theatre, Liverpool

Image Source: Epstein Theatre

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Play
Genre: Drama
Date: March 17 2015
Location: Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, England

Based on the famous book of the same name, and following a very successful musical adaptation, Helen Forrester’s Twopence To Cross The Mersey is currently showing as a stage play at the Epstein Theatre. Although the main plot is the same, this version tells the story in a very different way, but the key messages that come from the show are as prevalent as they are in its previous incarnations.

Twopence To Cross The Mersey is a true story which is set in the early 1930s. It is focused on a family which had previously been wealthy when living in the capital, but since the Great Depression, they had no choice to leave behind nannies, servants and other characters and characteristics which embodied middle-class life at the time, and they moved from the South-West to the North-West. Their reason for coming to Liverpool was the potential for new employment and a fresh start, having heard good things from friends and relatives who had also come to the region.

However, they soon discover that the prosperity they had seeked would not be easy to achieve. Just finding accommodation proves difficult enough, and finding work is even more of a challenge. It takes many false dawns and very small steps forward for the family to just make progress, never mind obtaining the lifestyle which they had hoped for. As it turns out, it takes a very long time before the family can start to truly enjoy their new lives.

Not all is as it seems, though. For there is a prevailing feeling that the mother of the family (played by Emma Dears) is less inclined to make the sacrifices and do the things necessary to keep her family going. Not only does she take great reluctance in looking after her own young children – and she is a mother of seven – but she finds it beneath her to mix with people of a lower class who are trying to help them in any way possible, and she believes that she should not have to put in as much work as her husband (Christopher Jordan), who finds it very hard to get work, but still believes that she should reap the financial benefits if and when they do get paid. This includes spending money on new clothes for herself and more flashy household items instead of providing the basics for her large family.

But the central character is the daughter, Helen (played by Maria Lovelady). Early on, we see that she is assigned the task of looking after the youngest child during daytimes while times are hard, but we soon realise that even as the family begin to turn their luck around, her role is pre-determined to remain the same: as a woman, in their mind, she should not worry about getting an education (her attempts to attend school are prevented continuously by roadblocks placed in front of her by the family), or getting a job in the future, and should instead be satisifed with the propsect of one day being a housewife. This crushes her spirit more severely as the play goes on, and it soon comes to a crossroads when an opportunity comes up which she only gets to briefly experience, but when she learns the truth, she believes that her chances of finally breaking away are permanently wrecked. She receives advice from others along the way, but her big dilemma remains: does she have a chance to achieve a future of her own accord, or will she forever remain someone whose destiny is decided by her very controlling family?

I thought the show took its time to get going, due to the slower pace than in its other productions, but things do eventually flow and one can see the quality of the performances; the story is narrated on-stage by characters between scenes, which is something different, but it is the storytelling during the scenes themselves which make the biggest impact. Emma attracts the desired amount of dislike as the stuck-up mother who considers herself too important for menial tasks. Christopher is very good as the father who manages to keep his composure and stick to his posh roots, even through the more challenging situations. The other characters perform well, but the standout star of the show is undoubtedly Maria as Helen. It is very hard to pull off such a drama-entailed young lady whose existence is surrounded by negativity yet retains optimism and can stand up for herself when necessary. One can feel her disappointment, her struggle, her sense of injustice at her predicament, and some of her scenes are very emotional, so when she does get opportunities to progress, they do not feel predictable, and you are happy that this character is getting what she wants, albeit whilst still having to fight for her goals.

I thought that one downside of the play, without giving too much away, is that certain plotlines or character clashes are not fully developed or do not reach a satisfactory conclusion. Whilst the ending makes sense, it feels rushed, and I was expecting something else to happen. I also felt that the climax itself felt a little too stage-like for what had, up until then, had come across as a real drama in a theatre setting.

Overall, I felt that this was a good show. It is a show which will appeal to an older audience, not only for the old-fashioned setting, situations and elements (the backgrounds are built to look like old-style Liverpool, and there are a few props tailored to that era, including a silver-cross pram), but because it is slow-paced and tells then story in a quiet, unspectacular way. So, if you are not som,eone who enjoys plays which are largely serious and take time to develop, you may not enjoy this. And if you have read the book or if you saw the musicalm it is debatable as to whether or not this will meet your expectations. But as a show which tells a logical story from a time which many are familiar with but is now a thing of the past, it is an enjoyable and very well-performed production, and for those who wish to know more about Liverpool life in the early-to-mid 20th century, this is a play worth seeing to give you a better understanding of what life was like and what challenges people had to face.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 – Good