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Theatre Review: Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels/ Royal Court

100,000 people can't be wrong. Phil Key makes a trip from over the water to witness its enduring appeal

Published on July 19th 2009.


Theatre Review: Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels/ Royal Court

SHOWBUSINESS types will tell you that there is no formula for theatrical success, and if there were they would bottle it and sell it. Step forward Liverpool's Royal Court which has found it, bottled it and has been selling it for the last four years.

Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels was vintage 2006, when it first went on stage there, and has been returning each year since.

they are worried that they are running out of audiences. The truth is that people go and see it time and again - one customer has clocked up 15 visits

Unusually, it has been filling the place during the summer seasons when most venues take a break on the assumption that everyone is on holiday.

So what is the trick discovered by Liverpool writers Dave Kirby and Nicky Allt?

First it is very local. Outside of Merseyside, how many people would recognise references to people like Rex Makin and Peter Price or places like West Kirby, Heswall and Marsh Lane?

It is also quite saucy with a few suggestive gags in the Carry On... style, some strong language and several Liverpool jokes with a hard edge.

There is a lot of excellent music played live by a small pit band and often played and sung on stage by the cast, the songs providing much of the charm of the show.

There are characters with names apparently inspired by names from Higson's beer mats and plenty of pantomime-style action (subtle this isn't).

Performances tend towards the grotesque, highly exaggerated with lots of body movement. The plot itself is totally ridiculous but near-enough local reality means audiences can feel part of the action. There is a lot of cheering and calling out.

Place it all in a theatre with a music hall ambience complete with tables and chairs in the stalls and a bar at the rear, and you have the perfect product.

This is claimed to be Brick's last appearance at the Royal Court, although you wonder. It is said that over 100,000 people have already seen it, even before it opened its latest run, and they are worried that they are running out of audiences. The truth is that people go and see it time and again - one customer has clocked up 15 visits - and this was indeed my fourth production.

It still works, I still laugh. As Frank Carson says, it's the way you tell 'em, and this cast has everything worked out to a fine degree. Not only do they know how to sell their lines but obviously still get great enjoyment out of doing so.

The story involves three Liverpudlians, who are fed up with the snooty people on Wirral insulting them, and put together a plan to wall up the Queensway and Kingsway.

It may sound daft, but the scheme

they put into operation could - at a pinch - work. It involves the use of big building blocks, a terrorist-styled threat to close the tunnels, so the bricking up can take place, and the use of cheap East European labour.

Yes, they do cut off Wirral and allow only one resident through - Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez.

The characters are all comedy stereotypes, yet recognisable, from cowboy builder Dickie Lewis (Andrew Schofield) and blonde money-chaser Maggie (Suzanne Collins) to blue rinse Heswall snob Ann Twacky (Eithne Browne) and her golf playing husband, Dennis (Roy Brandon).

Ms Browne has great fun with Mrs Twacky, sending up the snooty Tory Wirralian, celebrating ten years of the peninsula's Cheshire postcode, with great gusto. Put-upon, western-loving husband Dennis, the worm who finally turns, is also lovingly portrayed.

Royal Court favourite Andrew Schofield is hilarious as scouse scally Dickie Lewis: his set piece, in which he tackles a tough piece of liver in Maggie's cafe with an array of builder's tools, now a classic.

But this is very much an ensemble work, underlined by having the same cast ever year - Carl Chase is a drunken tunnel worker who sobers up to lead the brickies; Suzanne Collins is gorgeous Maggie in her own greasy spoon Davy Edge is a dissatisfied telephone worker, Gerard Gardner; Adam Keast is Wirral cockle king Elliot Neston, and Francis Tucker is the Les Dawson-like Wirral lady Miss Liz Card.

When you have the right formula there is little need to change it and the show has hardly changed at all over the last four years.

There are some new jokes. The blackboard in the caff now offers a "Ricky Hatton Special - Two Rounds Only" while later there is an MPs Special, "Steak amd Fiddly Pie." There is also a reference to Wirral MP Ben Chapman and not a kind one.

The Liverpool Culture Company comes in for a bit of stick when it is suggested they ordered snails during 2008, "eaten by a gang of leeches".

The set design from veteran Billy Meall is also a great asset with a fine Liverpool skyline from which various scenes appear including the cafe and Mrs Twacky's Heswall residence.

One thing the show has done is bring in a whole new audience, one which seems relaxed and totally unstuffy (I was one of the few wearing a tie).

Local references, music and gags certainly do the trick. But like any vintage, ingredients are not enough and it is quality that counts. Here the show directed by former Everyman artistic director Bob Eaton really is the finest.
*Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels runs until August 22. Tickets: 0870 787 1866

9/10

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EveJuly 15th 2009.

I've seen this show every time it has been shown at the Royal Court and I absolutely love it. All the cast are totally amazing but I especially love Drew Schofield as Dickie Lewis who has me crying with laughter with some of his antics.Would be a shame if the Royal Court don't stage this again for sometime as I know many who go back time and time again.

jabberwookieJuly 15th 2009.

Deserves both a west end run and a BBC production for the benefit of the rest of the UK.BRAVO chaps - a work of genius that will live for a 1000 years.

Ricky LakesideJuly 15th 2009.

Should be mandatory viewing for all 6th form students. This is contemporary Shakespeare. The laughter rings hollow when you realise the predicament and understand it is really a study in paranoia - not a comedy play.It rivals Godot in intellectual scope and should be played by the RSC.

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