There’s grace and danger in ‘The Sum’, the penultimate production in the Everyman’s reactivated repertory company season. From the pen of writer Lizzie Nunnery, its words and music tackle the issues of the day and don’t flinch whilst looking the austerity lie in the eye. By Alan O’Hare.
“My dad took dole for ten years and he was never ashamed.” Twelve words. That’s all it takes for Lizzie Nunnery’s ‘The Sum’ to stand apart from avarice and reveal itself as a contender.
Art has to contend with all kinds now. You want a picture taking, whip out your phone. You want some music playing, download it for free. You want to read… come off it, who’s got the time? But art used to be noble. It used to aspire and inspire. It used to lie in the gutter and look up to the stars – not look down on performers and punters.
Many writers are bitter, now. I’m generalising, of course, but it’s there for all to see… they appear to want to stand apart from their audience and explicitly demonstrate how they’re better than you. That attitude, coming as it does in an era when the tail wags the dog in most mediums, has extended into the choices audiences make, too, such as the appetite for posh porn like ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘The Royals’.
The word on the street about ‘The Sum’ is that it’s ‘a play with songs’, developed from an afternoon drama for BBC Radio 4, and that it is all set to highlight the Everyman’s brave and brilliant decision to bring back its repertory company after twenty five years. It was and it did… but it was something else, too. Bloody brilliant.
It was Bruce Springsteen who said that great artists need to continue to see themselves in their audiences if they want to get better. Nunnery’s latest work stands proudly on the edge of town and its characters are as real as an 86 bus. The men are vulnerable and the women are strong, but both have moments when they hold up their end of the relationship bargain. The narrative is simple and directed with a minimum of fuss by the theatre’s artistic director, Gemma Bodinetz – indeed, the play and its production are as austere as the austerity that shapes it.
‘The Sum’ captures the zeitgeist. Not just because it’s set in the now (though mentions of the EU and zero hour contracts help), but because the story it tells keeps happening again and again. Nunnery’s wonderful imagination may have coloured in the lives of our heroes – a nod to musical taste here, a saying from a nan there – but the play is very much the result of an artist holding up a mirror to society. There were certainly half a dozen or so incidents of happenstance that had the engaged audience nodding in recognition…
Pivoting on the casual contracts in and around the life of crack calculator Eve Brennan (played by an itchy Laura Dos Santos), the story unfolds slowly over a couple of hours and is punctuated by eleven original songs written by Nunnery and her regular musical collaborator, Vidar Norheim. The first thing you notice upon entering an Everyman reverted to the round, is the instrument pit in the heart of the room. The blood of the piece flows from there, as the action veers betwixt and between words and music. Is it a musical? Who cares. With an incidental score somehow recalling the noir dream/nightmare jazz of ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’ (surely no accident), the audience has to lean in and concentrate to follow the plot.
But that’s no bad thing. After all, if the writer credits you with enough intrigue to want to work with the actors, then the least you can do is try. The performances draw you in, anyway, especially Pauline Daniels’ Iris Brennan who steals the show at every turn with all the pathos of a Robert Wyatt trumpet line. Iris is ‘every nan’ and living with her daughter following the death of her husband. The onset of dementia is colouring her thoughts and her lines are written and delivered with enough grace to find both comedy and tragedy, often within seconds of each other. When she sings is the big reveal and the songs given to her allow us to glimpse the parts of the character that she’s kept for herself over the years.
She gives plenty away, too. Both her daughter, Eve, and grandaughter Lisa (Emily Hughes) benefit from the pearls she drops as they struggle through school, work and home problems. The problems at home are brought on by the disastrously-timed sacking of central character Eve’s fella’, Danny (a well-judged, understated performance from Liam Tobin), which brings all the cuts necessary for Eve to demonstrate ‘The Sum'(s) of the title.
The play is ensemble-based and starts in a strip-light lit DIY warehouse with cuts a-coming (Rapid, anyone?). Urban folklore is used well to quickly establish the problems faced in the personal lives of the peripheral characters, but in truth they seem present more to sing, play and dance as opposed to advance the story (Keddy Sutton’s granite Steph O’Sullivan aside). Sure, Nunnery has ensured the reality of cheap labour is represented spot on with a very real array of accents and circumstances, but side plots like an upcoming wedding and issues with childcare come and go quicker than a benefit sanction.
“We try and tell stories that resonate with our time and place,” said Nick Bagnall, associate director at the Everyman, when discussing the reactivation of the repertory company idea recently. “But Liverpool is a very specific audience.” He’s not wrong. But ‘The Sum’ gets it all just right. Of course the piece would travel well and succeed anywhere, but there’s something undeniably Scouse about it all. Not in any broad sense, but in the tiny details. In the colour. In the nuance. In the voice of the writer. And certainly in the way Daniels’ character calls the budgie a “bastard”.
Returning to the ‘is it a musical or a play’ question, I say it’s neither. ‘The Sum’ is a tone poem that captures the things we all think about as our worries replace our realities during the rapid eye movements of our dreams. Songs like the razor sharp ‘Forgive Me If I Smile (The Day That Maggie Thatcher Died)’, the beautiful ‘One Day I Want To Get Straight’ and the prescient ‘Poverty Knocks’ raise the piece above its contemporaries, while all the time keeping its feet firmly planted in earthly roots.
The cynical ones may say that it all ends the same in the long run, but ‘The Sum’ offers us the hope we need to fight back. As our heroes turn to us at the end to sing: “watch out, the boat is a-rockin'”.
until Saturday July 1st 2017
Everyman Theatre, Hope Street, Liverpool
Pic by Stephen Vaughan