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THEATRE REVIEW: Canary/Liverpool Playhouse

Ian Moore finds truth winning out in Jonathan Harvey's compelling new drama of forbidden love

Published on April 28th 2010.

THEATRE REVIEW: Canary/Liverpool Playhouse

THEATRE is a great medium in making one examine how foolish one has been, can be and, often, continues to be, as an individual and as a nation.

The triumvirate that is Liverpool’s Everyman Playhouse, Hampstead Theatre and English Touring Theatre offers a rich mix of the country’s leading and emerging artists, bringing thrilling, ambitious theatre to audiences starved of such fare

Not unlike holding up a mirror to society Jonathan Harvey’s Canary makes us, the audience, reflect upon what now seems ludicrous elements of how we were back in days of yore.

As a young playwright, Jonathan Harvey’s works included Beautiful Thing, Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club and Boom-Bang-a-Bang, all of which established him as one of the foremost voices in contemporary theatre. It also gave him a back catalogue to live up to: high expectations each and every time a new piece came around.

Although his more recent work has been in television; Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, episodes of Britannia High (I suppose we all have to earn a crust) as well as Coronation Street, Harvey returns to the stage with this new, generation-spanning play with his ‘reputation’ very much intact.

The entire piece centres on a familiar premise. As Shakespeare so beautifully put it, “… to thine own self be true...”

Interwoven with magical touches and pitch black humour, Canary is an unflinching story about family, forbidden love and, more than anything else, honesty. Spanning four decades and three generations, the play which, while gently mocking the state of the nations views toward “homosexualists” over the decades, turns on its head in a short-but-brutal second half.

With a unique richness of texture and range, Canary brings us into contact with a diverse character list which includes a primetime TV host, an aversion-therapy doctor, Mary Whitehouse and the Klu Klux Klan. Skilfully pulling these wide-ranging threads together, the play provides a social overview of Britain during the last 50 years, with a focus on the struggle against homophobia. A struggle which, in hindsight, has been little short of barbaric.

In the 1960s, Tom and Billy (played by two sets of actors, younger and older) are persecuted for their love of one another, they go their separate ways. As pits close and the dole queues grow, Mickey and Russell escape to find the capital in the 1980s, sing along to Boys Town Gang’s Remember Me (youtube it, it’s a real blast from the past!) and make their way in the world in politics

and the arts respectively.

Flash forward to today and the paparazzi are chasing a love story that could tear a family apart.

With a great ensemble – the cast includes veteran TV actress Paula Wilcox - the piece is all at once deeply moving, funny, uplifting, contains cracking dialogue and superb direction from BAFTA award-winning director Hettie Macdonald.

However its one failing, particularly in today’s society, is the sense that the “outing” of a chief of police may not create the furore needed to drive the story. It may garner a few headlines but would blow over in a matter of moments.

Yet Canary holds a deep and powerful message about understanding of self. Real self. Once your concept of self expands and honesty turns up, along with a little push from an outside source, as in the case of Older Tom (Phillip Voss) then and only then can one truly be honest with oneself. In moving forward Tom takes a step for all. The Shakespeare line concludes with “ ... and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans't not be false to any man”

That this production was commissioned by the Everyman and Playhouse’s artistic director, Gemma Bodinetz, is testament to the company's commitment to new writing. Nurturing a writer who first came into the public eye by winning the Playhouse’s Young Writers Competition at the age of 17 has to be applauded.

The triumvirate that is Liverpool’s Everyman Playhouse, Hampstead Theatre and English Touring Theatre offers a rich mix of the country’s leading and emerging artists, bringing thrilling, ambitious theatre to audiences starved of such fare.

Following the triumph that was Roger McGough’s The Hypochondriac in 2009, all parties should be congratulated for levels of creative excellence that will continue to generate critical acclaim.

Theatre will continue to be a great resource for allowing us to reflect and question and, who knows, in years to come Canary may have the same impact on homophobia in the UK as Angels in America did across the Atlantic.


*Canary runs at The Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 15 May 2010. Box office 0151 709 4776.

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AnonymousApril 28th 2010.

Like the look of this. Thanks

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