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REVIEW: Bright Phoenix/Everyman

For a 'cultural iconic renaissance', Liverpool might sell its body, but it can never sell its addled soul in Jeff Young's drama

Written by . Published on October 9th 2014.

REVIEW: Bright Phoenix/Everyman

IT was described as Jeff Young’s love letter to Liverpool but, depending on which side of the fence you occupy, you might perceive it as more of a Liverpool Kiss.

The street occupied by the characters in Bright Phoenix is not an easy one to tread, especially for evangelists of Liverpool’s regeneration. Namely, it is Lime Street, rotting gateway to the city, home to the crumbling Futurist cinema: urban blight and irony at its finest in our post Capital of Culture world.

Bright Phoenix veers away from the common, non confrontational fodder that scouseland audiences have been drip fed about themselves for so long it has now become the norm

Bright Phoenix is billed as “a love story tinged with tragedy about a gang of rebel kids who don’t fit in, who grow up to be a gang of rebel adults, who still don’t fit in. And about their love for a dying cinema and their mad plan to bring it back to life like a phoenix in the night”. 

It is a little more complicated than that. This is essentially a piece about wild imagination, while at the same time making a big fat point about civic lack of imagination. That bit isn't in the blurb.  And, sometimes, you have to employ your own imagination, simply to make sense of it all.

The narrative lurches between the present day and the 1980s, and the Blue Remembered Hills-style fortunes of a group of eight-year-old dreamers who spark up fags, batteries, made-up aeroplanes and the old Standard firework that gives the play its title.

Then, 20 years back, one of them, Lucas (Paul Duckworth) suddenly splits up with Liverpool, his childhood sweetheart, Lizzie, and the gang who named themselves The Awkward Bastards.

Penny Layden, Rhodri Meilir, Carl Au, Mark Rice-Oxley %26#38%3B Paul Duckworth In Bright Phoenix %28C%29 Jonathan Keenan -8263 %28Large%29Penny Layden, Rhodri Meilir, Carl Au, Mark Rice-Oxley and Paul Duckworth 

The wake he leaves is one of dark physical and emotional hurt. Now he is back, quickly falling in with what’s left of the same ne’er-do-wells he fraternised with in childhood. He is the same leather jacket, same swagger, but his city is a very different place. 

It has sold its body but, not entirely, its addled soul. The prize?  “Iconic developments”, which remain nameless, “just a five minute walk away”.

What’s not to love? Or as cross-dressing torch singer Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) boasts: “We’ve got cafes. Cafes with chairs outside. You don’t get that in Paris.”

Hang on, cross dressing torch singer? They don’t have that in Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels.

No they don’t, and this is where Bright Phoenix veers away from the common, non confrontational fodder that scouseland audiences have been drip fed about themselves for so long it has become the norm. Since Liverpool-set theatre was drained of its political essence. To this end, Young's piece has more than a ring of old school Everyman about it. 

He says: “I wanted to show people a version of the city that is ‘unauthorised’ or ‘unofficial’ – a glimpse into the magical margins of the city and its characters that are hidden away down back alleys.” 

So Bright Phoenix is starry, it’s dreamy, with echoes of Berlin, Cabaret, David Niven, celluloid magic, love and loss. It is a microcosm of the rich cloth of the city from which we are cut: the failed pop stars, bar-room chancers and bullshit merchants.

But within that fabric runs the gold and silver threads. The faded woman who remembers when her star shone vivid, like Elsie (Cathy Tyson) who prowls the street, watching, beshawled, carrier bags in gnarled hands who will rise one last time.  And the strong women, like spurned and bitter Lizzie Flynn (Penny Layden). She knows how to light up the room and it’s not by getting a spray tan or a scousebrow, its by syphoning off the leccy from the lap dancing bar next door to the deserted picture palace she has made her own. 

Rhodri Meilir As Spike Smith In Bright Phoenix By Jeff Young - Photograph By Jonathan Keenan_8080 %28Large%29

Somewhere there’s music, and special shout-out for Martin Heslop’s well thought incidental compositions, executed with skill by wonderful flautist and singer Laura J Martin and multi instrumentalist Vidar Norheim who was, by the way, voted Norway’s most promising songwriter in 2011.

And in this weave, too, are boys with every right to dream, like Lizzie’s  brother Alan “Icarus” Flynn (Carl Au who plays Barry in Waterloo Road). Al obsesses about flying on Meccano wings, but Lucas spellbinds him. With druggie “bird blood” coursing through his veins, he comes crashing tragically to earth. And its Spike (Rhodri Meilir), your typical Liverpool wastrel, who lost an eye at the hands of Lucas’s fishing rod years ago. Spike explains that he gets by nicking scrap from Liverpool’s abandoned buildings, the libraries, swimming baths and boozers whose land will be grabbed for student apartments once they have finally been allowed to fall down. “You think The Futurist is bad,” he tells Lucas. “Your house is a hole in the ground.”

The impact some of this pertinence is lost in translation by the action, which twists and jolts like a giddying Newsham Park waltzer. Ideas and exchanges are sometimes delivered at imponderable speed and there is no let up on demands for your absolute concentration. Perhaps that is why director Serdar Bilis chose to dispense with an interval. 

Nevertheless, at the heart of Bright Phoenix is a message worth straining your ears for and all credit to Young for being unafraid to give voice to sentiments some decision-makers in Liverpool will be uncomfortable with - a "deathly lack of dreamers” being among them.

Criticism in small cities, however valid, never goes down well - there are too few hiding places. However, in Village Liverpool we indeed are awkward bastards and frequently can’t help ourselves.  

Rod Holmes, Liverpool ONE supremo and Everyman/Playhouse board member, told Confidential after the show that he thought Liverpool was a more grown up city than seven or eight years ago (who recalls the perfunctory, short applause the audience awarded Terence Davies' gloriously rude Of Time and The City when it premiered here in 2008?).

Furthermore, he said, it could now have these conversations with itself.

Perhaps that is true, but don't expect to see too many paid up members of the city's business "sexy networking" brigade getting a chara up to see Bright Phoenix anytime soon.


*Bright Phoenix runs until Saturday October 25.

Angie Sammons on Twitter @twangeee

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