Photography: Robin Clewley / robinclewley.co.uk

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After months of fractured connection, a podcast-turned-theatre-production asks: how well do we really know Liverpool?

A lot can change in a year. New buildings rise up as favourite businesses close. The river still flows, but the bustle of summer events which would usually fill the Waterfront is absent. As we reconnect with Liverpool, how we move through it may not be quite the same as it has been before. No better time, then, to question what else it could be – or more accurately, what it already is to some.

Love, Liverpool originated as an Everyman Theatre podcast series created and released over lockdown. Each episode is a collection of poems, stories and memories of Liverpool, which all seemed so far away during those first difficult months of the pandemic. Featuring contributions from local writers including Amina Atiq and Roy, and famous names such as David Morrissey and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the series provides glimpses into the many lives played out across the city’s streets. Now the podcast has been adapted for the stage. The hours of recorded material – and subsequent public response submissions which the Everyman published alongside each episode on their website – have been condensed into a single show, directed by Nathan Powell and written by Chloë Moss.

In doing so, specific challenges arise. How do you turn such a long and episodic project into a narrative which works in the theatre? “We’ve tried to unify it a little bit,” explains Moss. “Obviously we didn’t want to crowbar in a narrative which felt like it was shoved in. But we looked at it as a sort of big celebratory piece about Liverpool. There’s a rough framework of a day in the life; it kind of covers a 24-hour period. Different voices come in and out that don’t necessarily all fit together – but there are crossovers, little moments of connection.”

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Precisely what stories have made it into the show is still being kept under wraps when we speak, but director Nathan Powell backs up Moss’ implication that Love, Liverpool is not so concerned with the specificity of place so much as what it means to the people who move through it. “It was just about telling the story of Liverpool through these little snapshots that feel really particular and detailed and small – and then that told a much bigger story. It feels lovely to have these small little moments.”

After all, this was one of the things that makes the podcast series such a delight to listen to. You may not be personally familiar with the streets of Norris Green, but you can connect to Kay Nicholson’s description of intimate familiarity and association with a place. In this way, it makes you recognise the everyday magic in ordinary places. Perhaps this was a necessary skill to develop in lockdown, when many of us found ourselves suddenly moving through a smaller world. Being confined to a locality meant becoming familiar with its details in a different way, a world where the small little moments became more significant.

How individual memories become part of a bigger story is covered particularly well in actor Aron Julius’ contribution to the project. Detailing his relationship to Livermore Court – an apartment building just off Lodge Lane – his narrative is, in one way, one of personal memories about a building. But Julius also manages to capture how this one place, and his experiences within it, intertwines with the much bigger story of what Toxteth is.

It’s also one of the stories which most convincingly addresses the notion that there’s more than one side to Liverpool. That for all that many of us love this city and will stand up for it against all detractors, its reality is far from perfect. As he explains: “I love where I’m from. But the reality of where I’m from is that it can be all good, then it can be all bad. There are two sides to that coin.” Julius is now in the cast of the stage production, and it was the opportunity to take this approach to telling the city’s story which inspired his involvement. “What affirmed that I wanted to be a part of the project was that it’s not just a rose-tinted look at Liverpool. Actually, it’s asking how we really shine the spotlight on what Liverpool is.”

It’s not just a rose-tinted look at Liverpool. Actually, it’s asking how we really shine the spotlight on what Liverpool is

It’s another challenge of the adaptation process: what does the production need to say about Liverpool now? “If you come to it with the view of, ‘I’m definitely going to hear about The Beatles, there’s going to be loads of football’, or all those things that are synonymous with Liverpool – it’s not that,” promises Moss. But Love, Liverpool ran the risk of falling into sentiment in other ways. After all, the project was born at a time when we almost needed that. In those months of 2020 when the world was almost entirely inaccessible, we pined for Liverpool. To fall into nostalgia for the good times – and only the good times – was understandable.

Of course, the stage production of Love, Liverpool needs to maintain some of what audiences enjoyed about the podcast series. The focus is still on the voices, and although they’re giving away little about the staging, Powell reveals that less is more: “It’s a really bare stage, a beautiful thing, because we’ve got five really amazing performers. So, the job becomes quite simple: five people telling us a story.” Meanwhile, projections from designer Tracy Gibbs featuring contributions from members of the public will offer visual cues to the city.

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At the same time, Love, Liverpool must also consider the question of how those of us who exist within this city are relating to it in this present moment. Romanticism no longer serves the same purpose now that we’re back in a living place, with all the complexities that brings. Instead, it becomes a dangerous safety blanket, a prop to a particular strain of Scouse Exceptionalism which believes that problems such as racism and homophobia aren’t native to Liverpool. Sadly, recent events have reminded us what a farce this idealism is.

To tread the line between honesty and celebration is something that the team seem to have been very conscious of throughout the development process. “The hope is to offer, firstly, some pride,” explains Powell. “You want people to walk away feeling proud of the city, but also to really think about what normal is going to become as the city starts to open back up. What does that look like? And how is that going to shift from getting to hear and see different people’s perspectives?”

This is something the collective experience of the theatre production can offer that the podcast format rarely can. To listen to a story through headphones is to imbue it purely with your own opinions: to attend a production offers a different context for considering what is being said by and to whom. Powell sees it as “an opportunity for you to take it in and then process it, rather than needing to combat it or manage it next to your opinions or thoughts or political beliefs”. It’s a powerful context in which to be honest, and Julius thinks it’s a stronger production for not shying away from this. “If you give [audiences] both sides of the coin, there’s a deeper connection to what you’re trying to do. The challenge is how do we get that across on stage… but there’s an opportunity to say this is all of Liverpool – the good and the bad.” Though whether audiences think they’ve hit the right note is down to them. “We don’t get to decide that,” says Powell. “But take it all in, and let’s come out of this and be a bit kinder and gentler with each other.”

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Although beginning in May 2020, Moss is very clear that the stage production of Love, Liverpool is “not about the pandemic, which people will hopefully be a bit relieved by!” Indeed, the very occasion of the production is a sign of things having moved on from this phase of origin. For most of the team, stage preparations for Love, Liverpool mark the return to theatre in over a year. When we speak, it’s a matter of days until rehearsals begin, and when asked what about Love, Liverpool they’re most looking forward to, Julius, Moss and Powell all agree on the return to collaboration. “It’s the exploration of the rehearsal,” says Julius. “Being in the room of people and being able to really unpack it and find new things. Using the text to create something special for an audience to consume.”

Indeed, it’s this space for evolution which is the very purpose of this production. While the podcast opened an inaccessible world, now we are each once again creating our own stories of place. We will perhaps arrive at the Playhouse via the sites we’ll again re-visit in its seats: from the train, down Hope Street, or past Thomas Rigby’s. We no longer need to take another’s word for what these places are to us, but we can still learn so much about them. “It’s the things you know, but from different perspectives,” explains Powell. “Amina [Atiq]’s perspective of Hope Street is going to be completely different to mine. I think it’s really useful and interesting to say that there’s a shared belonging in all of these spaces.”

And if there’s anything we’re ready for right now, surely it is this shared belonging. Isn’t that what we’ve all been looking forward to so much over the last 18 months? Maybe that’s why one of the recurring themes of the podcast series was pubs and bars – hubs where we gather and share experiences. Writer Chloë Moss examined what a pub can be in her tale of The Volly in Waterloo, a venue often used to mark the big events of life and for savouring its small joys. A place “[not] just for laughter and babies being born, it’s also for drunk men with sorrows”. A place where neither joy nor solace are really found in the bottom of a glass, but in being with a community of others.

Of course, the theatre can be such a place, too. Just like it is for the team onstage and behind the scenes, Love, Liverpool might be a return to a theatre seat in over a year for most of the audience, too. For some it will forever become the answer to the question: ‘What did you see first when the world reopened?’ It’s a collective experience, but one to which we will each have our own response. We will connect with different stories and share feelings we relate to, all while having different experiences of life. And it’s this diversity of enjoyment which Moss believes makes it work: “It’s all the more universal because there’s not any particular group that’s going to have that exact same experience. And that’s great, isn’t it?”

Love, Liverpool is at the Playhouse from 5th until 14th August.

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