Liverpool Theatre Festival Review – Bombed Out Church, Liverpool

Image Source: Visit Liverpool

Liverpool Theatre Festival

Well, the inaugural Liverpool Theatre Festival has come and gone, and I can safely say that it was a massive success. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, everyone around the world has been affected on some level, as have the arts and culture sectors of society. Theatre is a huge part of UK life, so the fact that we have not been able to enjoy a proper live theatre show since March has been very tough to accept, never mind for the theatres themselves who have had to keep their doors closed while the likes of shops, restaurants and pubs have received the green light to re-open.

But you can’t keep the theatre scene down, and certainly not in Liverpool, a city which thrives on taking challenges head-on and overcoming them. So, when the restrictions were eased just enough to allow for live performances to take place in a Covid-safe manner, Bill Elms got to work. He and his highly-talented team at Bill Elms Associates set about bringing some much-needed light relief and entertainment to the Liverpool residents, and the result was the Liverpool Theatre Festival, held across nine days from September 12-21. It’s a celebration that I already have a high opinion of, but one which we will look back on in years to come as being significant on so many levels.

When I heard about the event, I was delighted, but I did have concerns as to how it would be managed to keep attendees safe from the pandemic; after all, theatre relies on being close-up and intimate, elements which have become no-no’s in the current landscape. However, I had nothing to worry about, and I was highly impressed by the way in which seats were laid out based on the groups that tickets were bought in. So, if you were in a group of four, you would have four seats side-by-side, but if you had one seat, that chair would be left alone. It was a great system, and one that I believe larger theatres could replicate as we eventually reach the stage of having audiences back proper. (The venues themselves could simply keep a specific number of chairs empty, allowing for 200-250 attendees to be safely accommodated, though that depends on whether the revenue brought on by reduced ticket sales justifies the running costs, hence the stalemate at present.) In addition, the toilets were provided via portable loos, while drinks could be ordered via a QR code displayed on the singular tickets, and all team members wore masks, visors or both to reassure everybody around them. Screens were placed on the ticket desk, while all attendees had their temperatures checked and their hands sanitised upon entry. It was brilliantly managed.

All of this was partly made possible due to the location, and what a location it was. St. Luke’s Church, or to give it the more common title The Bombed Out Church, was a perfect setting for an event of this nature. The venue itself is quite a sight, but by playing host to live shows at a time when the temperatures are still acceptable and with either beautiful sunshine or a peaceful, cloudless night sky above the stage, the Bombed Out Church was superb. I personally now consider it to be one of my favourite venues for live shows, so here’s hoping that we’ll see far more shows held at the church in the future.

Elsewhere, it was great to see some of the staff from the Epstein Theatre (one of the casualties of the pandemic, though I’m confident it will reopen sometime during 2021), because this will have been a particularly worrying period for the ushers, the ticket salespeople, the cleaners and everyone else who theatregoers take for granted. This event gave them the opportunity to get back to doing what they do best, and they did an awesome job. They also got into the swing of things for certain shows; for instance, one member of the team had a parrot on his shoulder for Hurrah For The Pirate King!

I must mention the lighting for these shows. During the day, the sunshine would light up the Bombed Out Church, but for the evening shows, the range of colourful lighting helped to set the mood nicely for the performance. Some events relied on darkness, at which point lighting was obviously minimal, whereas for other events, it was about providing colour and warmth to the surroundings. If you’ve checked out social media posts concerning the event, you’ll see some stunning visuals, and it’s a reminder of how big of a role lighting plays in enhancing one’s enjoyment of a show.

Onto the shows themselves: A Fairy Tale Journey Across The Mersey kicked things off on Saturday September 12 with both morning and afternoon shows. Then, Laughterhouse Comedy gave us two evening shows of which I attended one, and it was tremendous; getting to laugh at the craziness of the past six months via Chris Cairns, Neil Fitzmaurice, Steve Royle and Daliso Chaponda was a huge relief, and a sign to try and not take everything so seriously. Sunday September 13 gave us two performances for The Very Best Of Tommy Cooper, during which Daniel Taylor stepped into the shows of the comedy legend and educated younger attendees on why Cooper was so important, as well as bringing back memories of classic jokes and magic tricks gone wrong for those old enough to remember Tommy at his peak.

The tone became a little more sinister on Monday September 14 for Deathly Confessions, which saw Crissy Rock, Sam Walton, Thomas Galashan and James Templeton provide some darkly comical and at times emotional tales of their character’s involvement in some tales that are too close to the heart to reveal, except on this very night. Shakers was something completely different on Tuesday September 15, occasionally offering some thought-provoking points but more often providing laughs from the combination of Alice Bunker-Whitney, Danielle McLauren, Isobel Balchin and Jennifer Vaudrey. Then we had Sweet Mother on Wednesday September 16 starring Amanda George-Higgins, Margaret Connell and Lisa Symonds as, over two performances, they recapped a tough and turbulent period for the city of Liverpool in the second half of the 20th century.

Next, we had two different shows but with the same performers: Thursday September 17 gave us Matinee Musical Classics and Music Of The Night, two incredible shows from Absolute Opera starring the supremely talented Roy Lock and Olivia Brereton. Their singing was something to behold, and their performances were, to me, a major high point of the week. One could not help but be amazed by their talents, as demonstrated here. Friday September 18 was all about Judy & Liza, with two performances that looked back on the careers of one of the most famous mother-daughter double acts in history, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, which starred Helen Sheals and Emma Dears.

On Saturday September 19, there were two shows with a total contrast in their presentation. The Absolute Children’s Opera team gave us the enjoyable pantomime opera Hurrah For The Pirate King!, which had the younger attendees captivated throughout. Then, it was Something About Simon, a brilliant look back on the life and career of Paul Simon, played expertly by Gary Edward Jones. Finally, to round off the event on Sunday September 20, it was Swan Song (fittingly given the name!), as Andrew Lancel and the team put on a great performance to end a fantastic festival on a high.

I have mentioned this already in previous articles, but I really do hope that the Liverpool Theatre Festival becomes a regular event. The idea of an annual outdoor theatre festival (ideally during August, when the weather is at its best and the indoor theatre venues generally have a quieter period anyway) with a few dozen shows across the month would be amazing, especially if the Bombed Out Church serves as the venue. I personally loved every minute of every show I attended, as did my fellow writers who were just as thrilled as I was to be attending live theatre, music and comedy once again. Indeed, as the manager of Writebase, I am privileged to be able to attend these events in a normal environment; in the existing climate, it was an honour to be invited.

Overall, then, Liverpool Theatre Festival receives my highest recommendation possible. Many thanks to Bill Elms and his team, the staff who worked tirelessly to make this happen and to keep things moving during each performance, and of course to the performers themselves, all of whom seemed thoroughly delighted to be back doing what they do best. It remains to be seen as to when we will get to experience live shows in the more traditional theatres again, especially given the latest Government announcements, but I promise that theatre will return eventually, and when it does, it will enter a new boom period due to the huge demand for shows to resume. In the meantime, though, the Liverpool Theatre Festival was absolutely tremendous, and more than anything, it reminded me as to why theatre is vital to the UK’s cultural landscape. And when shows finally do return proper, there will be thousands of people more than ready to enjoy them. I know I will be.