Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Theatre Reborn – The Everyman Theatre Liverpool – March 2014

I was barely more than two years old when the Everyman Theatre was born on 28th September 1964 and Liverpool acquired its second repertory company. The converted Hope Hall, once a chapel and more recently a cinema, presented its work in a new type of arena for a Liverpool unfamiliar with a thrust stage before.

The New Everyman street frontage at night
(All images in this posting are my own, © N. P .Smith)
It was not until my late teens that I began to venture to the theatre. My school did not really teach drama or theatre in any sort of a serious way, confining its contribution to having students read out the parts of a couple of plays in class. For years afterward I felt somewhat disenfranchised, as many of my contemporaries clearly studied stuff like Shakespeare in earnest. The closest I got was the importance of Being Ernest. We certainly never had any school trips to the theatre. I have since become rather grateful in an odd sort of way, realising that many of those same friends of mine dislike Shakespeare with a passion and refuse to go near it, after having it shoved down their throats at school along with the over-boiled cabbage and lumpy custard.
My love affair with the theatre must have begun tentatively. I really don’t think that I could say what the first play was that I took myself to see, nor exactly where, but I do know that the place that rapidly became central on my radar was the Liverpool Everyman. Having been taken to concerts by my father since the age of seven at the nearby Philharmonic Hall I suppose that I knew that part of town, so it was a natural place to go, but there was something very special about the Everyman that made me want to keep coming back.
My Damascene moment came with a performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream in the January 1983. Director Glen Walford and designer Sue Mayes managed to divide opinion by setting the play in something like a clearing in a forest somewhere in the Far East. Actors made their entrances via rope bridges slung over the audience and Paddy Cunneen’s live score was performed on a collection of strange instruments from a sort of tree house to the rear of the stage. The fact is that, over thirty years later, I barely have to close my eyes to be able to see, hear and almost smell that production. Its energy and rhythm and its sense of genuine stage magic were incredible and it completely wiped the slate clean in my mind as far as Shakespeare was concerned.
The following winter the season included month long runs of both Return to the Forbidden Planet and The Tempest, on which the former was (rather loosely) based – by this time I was hooked.
Two programmes from 1983/4 season
The mixture of both pioneering new work and daring re-imaginings of timeless classics continues to be one of the hallmarks of the theatre, whilst its scale and design have ensured that every member of the audience was able to feel enveloped in the experience.
With the passage of time the theatre, its work and the very building itself (including the legendary Bistro) have become part of the fabric of Merseyside’s cultural and social life. On more than one occasion its very existence was threatened by economic pressures, but each time people have rallied round to save it.
At the turn of the century the Everyman joined forces with the Liverpool Playhouse, another controversial decision but one that has proved to be a great partnering. With the arrival of a new Executive Director Deborah Aydon and Artistic Director Gemma Bodinetz in 2003, the theatres began to look to their futures with a new optimism in the lead up to Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008.
With its 1975 monolithic, brutalist facade and its modern reputation, it was hard for lovers of the Everyman to recognise that the main fabric of the building dated back to 1837 – some 29 years older than the Playhouse. Little wonder then, that when architects were brought in to look at the potential for improvements and renovations on both theatres, they suggested that pulling the Everyman down and starting from scratch was the most viable option.
Queues for one last visit on the Bistro's last day
There was naturally a great wailing and gnashing of teeth and the knives were out for anyone who laid a finger on our Everyman, but after almost a decade in the planning the Everyman went dark in July 2011 following Gemma Bodinetz’s triumphant production of Macbeth and a celebratory event to gather everyone’s memories of the place.
A representation of the extiguished neon sign burns atop the old theatre
All the memories were fond ones of course. Everyone who loved the Everyman (myself included) manages some sort of psychological trick of selective memory-loss, being able to forget how it felt to sit for three hours on a hard wooden bench or a rickety old cinema seat, managing for the most part to avoid passing out from the heat as the staff desperately tried to keep a few people cool with portable air conditioners whirring away at full kilter. Access to the auditorium was via steep narrow stairways and front of house areas were cramped. Backstage things were worse, with Spartan being something of an understatement for the conditions endured by the cast and crew.
Yes – I know we will all look back wistfully to the old Everyman, but give the company a break everyone – to put on a show fit for the 21st Century they need the space and equipment to do it and, let’s face it, we audiences aren’t going to complain about a comfy seat and room to move about are we?
The old girl wasn’t so much demolished as dismantled, painstakingly rescuing anything that could be re-used in the rebuild or auctioned off as souvenirs to bolster the rebuilding fund. Via a webcam on the building opposite we were able to see the slow descent of the Everyman and the building next door down to basement level, and then the growth of the new structure on the same site.
Although the building now has a larger footprint the auditorium occupies a very similar space, remaining roughly the same capacity in its standard configuration. The extra room has made possible much better provision for public circulation space front of house as well as new facilities for rehearsal and scenic construction, a venue for the youth theatre and outreach projects, a writers’ room and new offices for the administrative teams.
Last Saturday evening a lantern parade danced and played its way from the Playhouse to deliver a love letter to the Everyman. Giant lantern puppets representing the two venues danced together in Hope street in front of huge crowds before symbolically lighting the illuminated Everyman sign that adorns the new facade, beneath the curtain of aluminium shutters that depict 105 local people.
The following morning we were able to see behind that facade as the doors of the building were opened to the public for the first time for a free event allowing access to just about all areas, except some parts of backstage where the finishing touches were being made to the set for the opening performance.
The new Stalls Bar
The first thing that grabs you when you walk in is that it doesn’t feel brand new, somehow it has a welcoming, lived-in feel about it. The use of reclaimed materials, including a very large amount of bricks from the old building, as well as clever surface treatments, have combined to give the place a sense of instant history.
The theatre visitor will find an open, airy cafe bar at ground level, with the box office to the right of the entrance. This cafe bar can open out to the pavement when the sunshine beckons. The next level up is the stalls bar, with access to a balcony overlooking Hope Street (no glassware out there please folks) and doorways to the left and right of the auditorium. Stairways to each side take you to circle level, although this is also accessible from within the auditorium from the stalls via curved stairways. To the right of the auditorium and bars are the main stairs and lift access to every level, as well as toilets incorporating baby changing facilities. In this side of the building we find the other new spaces like EV1 for the youth theatre and the writers’ room, while the offices run along the front of the building from circle level upward, screened from the street and the sun by the portrait wall.
Stairwells and lifts seen from stalls bar level
All the public spaces are finished in warm tones, incorporating a deep red ceiling mural design, while here and there are reclaimed theatre lights. Also reclaimed is much of the wood providing the finishes to the bars etc. Even some of the timber shuttering used during concrete construction has been re-used in the finished design.
Entering the auditorium, we find ourselves in a space that actually does feel like the Everyman already. To enable the same seating capacity while offering better comfort and access, the architect has returned to an aspect of the pre-1970 Everyman in using a gallery but this time it has just two rows of seats, above a stalls level with fully flexible seating. The “standard” layout gives us the familiar large thrust stage with seating on three sides. With five rows all round and a sixth row of raised seats (with footrests) at the rear of the centre block the capacity is approximately 400, but this can rise to 500 if reconfigured to be fully “in the round”.

The auditorium with visitors to the housewarming
(note rehearsal desks over some seating)
In its default layout, every stalls seat offers a completely unobstructed view of the stage, but it’s useful to remember that the back row in that centre block are the high seats. I will be occupying one of these seats myself next week and will provide an update on the experience (see below for update). Up in the circle, the two rows of seats both have a safety rail with an open mesh below it, and there is a possibility that this may be slightly in the line of sight to the nearest part of the stage. This is theoretical advice and I will be checking it out in practice soon (see below for update).

Over the stage is a lighting and flying grid with another remarkable innovation, in that the catwalks for rigging are fully accessible, meaning that a wheelchair user can perform rigging work. It also makes the whole rig far more easily accessible and safer for the entire crew.
A view up into the overstage grid
No description of the new Everyman is complete without mention of the Bistro. This was once an iconic venue in its own right, attracting people with its great atmosphere and cheap, wholesome food. A haven for anyone who wanted to chat over a meal or a drink, and one of the first places in town to include a wide range of vegetarian dishes among its home-made and locally sourced menu.
It is inevitable that this will be an opinion divider, as the most careful reconstruction could never have entirely satisfied every died-in-the-wool regular. The architects here have aimed at recreating the scale and feel of the old without trying for a direct reconstruction and I think they’ve hit their target pretty well. The new Bistro is in a windowless basement (of course) and has the obligatory low ceiling. Furnishings are simple tables and refectory style chairs as well as bench seating against the walls. There are some suitably retro looking rise and fall lights (which are already fascinating the punters) and the room has some cunning acoustic treatment to cut down hard echoes and help maintain a convivial buzz of chatter when it’s full. Entering from the main entrance from the foyer you approach a central, island bar with a smaller seated area to the right and the main long room to the left. Between the two is an inglenook containing a wood burning stove. One end of the main room may be separated off by a large sliding door to create a smaller space with its own entrance. The substantial kitchens are tucked away to the far end and the open food display counter no longer exists.
Inside the new Bistro
The street level cafe bar is open from breakfast time and throughout the morning while the Bistro takes over at lunchtime, remaining open till late. This means that there is a food and drink offering all day every day, bringing people into the building and hopefully providing an additional revenue stream to help support the theatre.
I spent the best part of three hours in the new Everyman last Sunday, along with a few thousand other people who came to explore. I also popped in for a post-concert glass of wine in the Bistro after a concert at the Philharmonic Hall on Thursday, and was pleased to find a pleasant atmosphere and quite a number of people there even at that late hour.
All that remains now is to see a performance in the new auditorium, and for that I have to wait till tonight...


Subsequent to posting the above item, I have seen the same production again from other angles and can now report on the experience in other parts of the auditorium.
I sat in the end seat on row F stalls, the "high" seats on the back row. These are comfortable, with foot rests at two heights to afford a choice of leg position. The view is excellent and still feels close to the stage even though it is the back row.

I also sat in what must be the theoretical "worst" seat in the house - this being the very end seat at the front end of the back row of the circle. The effect of the safety rail on the view is minimal and I saw no-one in either row leaning forward because of it (as would be the case if view was impaired). View of the stage was excellent with the slight exception that the reveal to the side of the arch partially obstructed the view to the very rear part of the set that fell behind the arch. The effect of this will vary according to individual set design, but it was only entrances and exits that were occasionally out of view in this production. This was countered by an enhanced view into the "wings" at the opposite side of the stage. A quick shuffle while some seats were empty showed that only the very last two seats in this row are really affected and by the third seat along the restriction is minimal.

Both of these performances were full houses and my view was unaffected by the people in front of me. Also, it is the nature of an open stage design like this that most directors will block a piece in such a way as to use as much of the space as possible, and actors will play to the whole house rather than focussing centre front.

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