Performers are the public face of the arts’ response to coronavirus but, behind the scenes, producers and theatre-owners around the country are working flat out to keep theatre live and alive. David Pugh staged Educating Rita in Cornwall; Nica Burns is arranging for Six to reopen in London later this year and Bill Elms has created this new Liverpool theatre festival to meet our strange, coronavirus circumstances. He selected productions less than 75 minutes long that could be presented in the open-to-the-skies ruins of St Luke’s church before a temperature-measured, bubble-spaced audience. The setting seems symbolic: “the bombed out church”, hit in the blitz in 1941, is a reminder both of bad times and of people’s capacity to come through them.
Twelve shows are presented. The one I catch, Sweet Mother, is part of an ongoing oral-history project initiated by Maria Paul of Nwoko Arts. Paul recorded the stories of white women who had married black men and brought up families in Liverpool 8. From these, she developed a script that follows the lives of Josie, Vera and Joan from the second world war up until the Toxteth riots of 1981. Their tales unfurl partly via recordings of their voices, crackling over loudspeakers, but mostly via three actors who speak the women’s words, groove their dance moves, cry their sorrows and strut their triumphs, as they meet tough times with verve, wit and humour, holding their heads high in the face of hardship and racial prejudice (Amanda George-Higgins, Margaret Connell and Lisa McMahon, respectively, do their subjects justice).
Josie, Vera and Joan recall their own pasts, but resonances with our present are powerful; not just in their accounts of racial injustice and economic hardship, but also in their expressions of resilience, self-reliance, mutual help, good humour and courage in the face of adversity.
One of the strengths of Paul’s script is that she leaves in complexities and contradictions of the women’s recollections: sometimes nostalgia rose-tints prejudice; at others times, racism, personal and political, is painfully hard-edged – enacted with a restraint that makes it all the more powerful.
Here’s hoping that plans for the production to tour – especially to schools – are realised.
• The Liverpool theatre festival ends tonight