Smoke and Mirrors
Rob Scales tells us of a cabaret for Liverpool by Collective Encounters, which draws on the Music Hall tradition.
After ringing around at least ten people, I had to ask myself ‘Do I really fancy a rainy Wednesday night out in Kirkdale on me bill’? I couldn’t resist. The mention of a ‘music hall style’ had struck a chord and thoughts of my family singing around nan’s old Joanna pushed me out of the door. But it wasn’t just sentimentalism that had provoked my interest: a bit of local social history never goes amiss. And the Music Hall tradition played a major part in the development of stand-up comedy, the variety show, pantomimes and musical styles, which encourage audience participation.
With just a few proprietors controlling the majority of the halls, the owners attempted to extract the maximum work for minimum pay from the performers. This led to the formation of the Variety Artists' Federation, which in 1907 organised the first music hall strike.
And what a treat I was in for, met by many a friendly face and a genuine mix of people from all over the city, young and old, in the same space.
A quick glance at the programme offered a quote from Ron Formby of Scottie Press which not only reminded me where we were, but offered a feel of what was to come:
“For far too long the alternative to change has been in the hands of people who have stayed in positions of power by saying ‘we may be crap but the alternative would be even crapper’.”
Music hall has been described as the television of its day, although while we may be ‘amused to death’ with the small screen, this show turned out to be a nice change and a light-hearted, yet thought provoking journey through a perspective on Liverpool’s social and cultural history from 1908 to 2008.
This cabaret was organised by Collective Encounters, a professional arts organisation based in north Liverpool, which ‘uses theatre as a tool for social change’. They run participatory programmes for local people, and have recently performed a play about the NHS, created from the joint perspectives of members of their over 50s drama group. They also work with 14 – 19 year olds, ’encouraging them to share their ideas and concerns, and develop their drama skills to create performances’.
In line with their aim to ‘make professional work for new audiences in non-traditional spaces’, the setting for ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ was inspirational, at the old Mill on Fulton Street in Kirkdale. According to the doorman, no-one had sat foot in the place for 30 odd years. Just off the dock road, the wooden beams, steel pillars and intimate lighting took us back to the turn of the last century and a message from Liverpool’s 700th Birthday celebrations – ‘A city of hope and possibility’. The questions re-emerged throughout the performance, ‘whose hope’ and ‘whose possibility’?
The performances managed to combine elements of stand-up comedy, film, pantomime and to get the audience involved. It was cleverly done and we laughed as the council of the day were parodied for their, far from philanthropic, giving of the public land that became Stanley park, to developers. This development was not driven simply by a need for public space for recreation, or to create jobs, but was set against other public demands of the time for improved sanitation and housing conditions, to reduce the high death rates.
Reflecting on the plight of some of the people of the day, Mike Neary’s character Sticky Sam sung the question,
‘ What’ve you got in larder la?,
He had us choking at the thought.
Bekah Sloan offered a fine performance as Madame Majike in beautifully harnessing her ‘natural forces’ to create the boom and bust cycle, then legging it with the tenner given to her from the audience, in a cloud of smoke. Some important messages were in there, given the current climate.
Fusing a variety of media, old and new, we were shown cleverly edited footage of early 1900’s Liverpool projected onto the big screen, on occasion with well choreographed dancing and live action in sync with the movements of the projected image. There was a real sense of spectacle, humour and passion running through it that had most of us in bits.
When John ‘the spoons’ did his thing our hearts went out to him. John has played the pubs of docklands Liverpool for many a year, and it was a joy to watch him caress those spoons. This man from Bootle sang of the times when he was a lad and trusted ‘neighbours were doing you favours’. His standing ovation was well deserved and made us all feel involved in the night.
In part celebration of this, we heard from ‘Letitia the Liverbird’ who from humble beginnings rose to stardom and toured the world on stage. She also gained notoriety for playing a role in the development of the Federation although her motivations were not just pay-related. Angered by a friend and fellow performer’s death on stage, she became active as an organiser and soon found herself cast aside by former employers who were not so keen on terms and conditions related to health and safety. She was a bit before her time here, although a moving characterisation from Sonya Moorhead gracefully captured the spirit of characters like her and other women of the time such as the Pankhursts, and Annie Kenney who were campaigning for the right of women to vote.
Alongside Mike Neary, Liam Tobin gave us a laugh, both as compere and particularly when he played the jangling housewife with his rollers in. Reflecting on their friends who had moved to Aigburth and ‘thought they’d arrived’, you had to smile and Les Dawson came to mind. With echoes of that famous Liverpool welcome, the audience were encouraged to ‘jump into the pool of life’ and have a swim song with them, an invite difficult to refuse.
In another scene, they addressed us as the ‘doyens of bandstand and bench’, and described themselves as ‘part-time individuals’, who preferred a cockfight to voting in elections. Each scene left us with plenty to think about.
So a big thanks to the actors, although the flow of the show was also due in large part to the impressive talents of the musical director/composer Simon James on sax and banjo. Working with fellow ‘Wizards of Twiddly’ musician and composer Andy Frizell on double bass, John Ellis on piano and Tilo Pinbaum on drums/percussion, we were treated to a rolling journey through the trials and tribulations of many a theme and character. Simon told us that he thoroughly enjoyed working with Collective Encounters, in a process which involved putting in at least eighteen months of collaborative research, planning, development and preparation. He also appreciated the community-based rehearsal space on Scotland Road, at The League of Well Doers Community Resource Centre, where they were given a very warm welcome. This process led to the creation of some wonderful melodies, with educative lyrics that prepared many of the audience for discussion and questions after the Karaoke.
The farewell song from the cast and musicians once again merged past and present to remind us of a particularly scouse slant on;
‘The spirit of the age...
Prophetic words set to an uplifting rhythm, and for those of us who like a bit of culture to shape rather than simply reflect our social world, we had experienced a night that was more than just enjoyable, it was needed. Most people I spoke to after had loved the sing along, the gags, the acting, dancing, music and general feel of the night. Not only that, they were conscious that they had learnt a fair bit too.
My sincere thanks go out to the cleaners, set builders, writers, performers, musicians, designers, costume makers, organizers, and to everyone else involved. A lot of hard work had obviously gone into this. Nice one.
If you get the chance, look out for future productions or get involved in their projects. Check their website: www.collective-encounters.org.uk
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