A couple of weekends ago the team here at Unity presented Cardboard Citizens’ blistering Cathy in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral. In her introduction to the piece Cannon Ellen Loudon talked about ‘our shared spaces’, a simple name for something vital and brilliant.
Unity is currently undergoing capital works (#BuildUnityBetter) and so we have been sharing spaces through our #OutofSpace programme with a range of partners across the city and beyond. Last week we worked with the Atkinson at Southport to open Travelled Companions glorious new show for under 5s Five More Minutes , and as I write this our technical team are busy converting Make Liverpool into a ‘pop up’ home for the brilliant LEAP festival programme.
We first came across Box of Tricks when we worked with them on Chip Shop Chips where, to use Ellen’s phrase, the shared spaces were chip shops. Instead of plaice and chips it was a case of play and chips. About the same time I saw their initial production of Narvik at the Playhouse Studio. So haunting was that production I had to go and see it twice, and quickly found myself starting conversations about rituals, fragments, poetry and Adrian Henri with writer Lizzie Nunnery
‘Narvik is not like anything else I have heard in the theatre…full of rich material…a compressed exploration of the effects of war, reaching out to a language other than words’ The Observer
Those conversations led to the first version of Horny Handed Tons of Soil, a 20 minute version of which was shared in the Philharmonic’s Music Room at Liverpool Acoustic Festival (which itself shared stages across the Unity, the Phil and venues up and down Hope Street).
When the full piece premieres in the ‘new’ Unity in July it does so as part of a series of shows celebrating the Mersey Poets – with Brian Patten’s The Story Giant at the Everyman and Roger McGough revisiting Summer with Monica with musicians from the Philharmonic.
‘Lizzie Nunnery and her band provided the centrepiece to the evening with a 20 minute exquisite beat poem, based around a line from a piece by original Merseybeat poet, the late Adrian Henri. A swelling, rollercoaster of a piece, a love story of Liverpool life from the wasted artists of Gambier Terrace to the Toxteth riots and beyond. A privilege to witness, this epic poem set to a laid back yet unnerving jazz backing .. captivating from start to finish” GET INTO THIS on Horny Handed Tons of Soil
And the conversation continued about Narvik too, which is how a Liverpool Everyman / Box of Tricks co-production came to be re-rehearsed in Unity’s temporary offices in Stanley Buildings (offices we are borrowing from Liverpool One, another form of sharing). But we had no home for the show to play here in Liverpool. The Playhouse studio wasn’t available, and Unity is of course in the hands of the builders. Step forward the wonderfully esoteric Bluecoat who are this year celebrating their 300th anniversary (if only walls could talk!). I mumbled the question ‘would you fancy working with us on this’ and they came back with a firm and absolute YES.
‘Nunnery’s unique theatrical fusion of haunting music and poetic imagery….a spellbinding study of wartime lovers at sea’ The Stage
But then I shouldn’t have been surprised – Unity and Bluecoat share a passion for being places where creative ideas are developed, and where they meet audiences often for the first time. Step into Bluecoat’s café at any moment of the day and at more than one of the tables creative plans will be being hatched. In the past few months I’ve seen avant garde poetry nights, the ingenious gamelan-like guitar wizardry of Ex-Easter Island Head and, courtesy of Bluecoat residents DADAFest, an extraordinary 24 hour performance. Fast forward a couple of months and they’re only staging Pierre Henry’s Liverpool Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral, 50 years after it was first commissioned for the Cathedral’s opening. Wow!
At the end of the day what really, really matters is that Narvik is a brilliant piece of work. An intense and powerful story beautifully told. The complexity of the partnership which has brought it back home to Liverpool is as delicate as the storytelling, but the ease with which it all happens here is the hall mark of our cultural city and its shared spaces.