Gala: Life Begins at 40, Everyman, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

The Everyman - the name says it all - established in 1964, in Hope Street, Liverpool, broke new ground for its daring repertoire and championing of new writing. Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, John McGrath and Andrew Cullen are just some of the names associated with an extraordinary institution that has attracted and encouraged many of today's leading directors, writers and actors.

The Everyman - the name says it all - established in 1964, in Hope Street, Liverpool, broke new ground for its daring repertoire and championing of new writing. Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, John McGrath and Andrew Cullen are just some of the names associated with an extraordinary institution that has attracted and encouraged many of today's leading directors, writers and actors.

Forty years on, it is celebrating its birthday with a renewal of its dedication to cutting-edge playwriting. The present artistic team has already demonstrated its commitment, supporting new work such as Tony Green's big-hearted play about asylum-seekers, The Kindness of Strangers, in which countless social and political issues emerged in Gemma Bodinetz's sparky, multi-ethnic production. The brand to which that piece of vibrant writing belonged was unmistakable, created in the shadow of the Liver Birds and shouting: "Made in Liverpool!"

At a £40-a-head gala, which raised more than £20,000 for a special fund to invest in writers and new work for the Everyman, there was plenty to celebrate. Old associates turned out to support the event, and among the friends reunited were former artistic directors Alan Dossor, Terry Hands and Ken Campbell, with many actors including Julie Walters, Sir Antony Sher, Jonathan Pryce and Pete Postlethwaite. It was an occasion for nostalgia beginning (half an hour behind schedule) with Martin Jenkins's account of his approach to the city council for a £3,000 grant to start the Everyman in an old cinema in which "as the audience sat down the dust rose up".

Of the solo spots, Ken Bradshaw's assured performance of Eddie Kavanagh's Jacket by Robert Farquhar brought Everton's victory in the 1966 FA Cup to vivid life, while Pryce's valiant rendering of The Worst Thing in the World was by no means the worst thing in the evening. Sher - reading from his autobiography, Beside Myself - recalled his audition as a callow youth for the Everyman's maverick director Alan Dossor. George Costigan and David Fielder, limbering up for their double-act in The Odd Couple down the road at the Playhouse, gave us Mastermind on the Everyman,with questions about its colourful characters and controversial events.

Russell performed a rap containing some pertinent lines about culture (when they weren't obliterated by the band), and Mike McCartney led The Scaffold in their 1967 No 4 chart hit "Thank U Very Much".

Even in an all-too-short extract from Mike Stott's Funny Peculiar Julie Walters's star qualities shone. Amid far too much indifferent music, Loreto Murray and Eithne Browne captured the pathos and humour of "I'm in Love with Sir", from Russell's Our Day Out.

Galas are notoriously difficult to organise, with actors parachuting in and, in the case of Bill Nighy, suddenly summoned away. This one was no exception. Despite the swift, businesslike introductions by the MC, the former Everyman actor Roger Phillips, it was a sprawling evening, more than slightly chaotic in presentation, unbalanced in quality and increasingly unfocused in direction. By 1am, you had had more than enough.

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