The 24-year-old Lizzie Nunnery's sharp new play Intemperance is set in 1854, when the neo-Classical St George's Hall in Liverpool opened its doors to the public. The play's theme of cultural glory versus the needs of society couldn't be more timely. St George's Hall reopened earlier this year after a £23m refurbishment, and the once thriving seaport, pulling itself out of the economic doldrums, is gearing up to be the European Capital of Culture in 2008.
Now, as then, however, there are those who fear that, for the poor, " it's never their time and they know their place." In the 19th century, St George's Hall boasted the world's first air-conditioning system, housed the city's crown court, and became, uniquely, a place where you could dance, listen to a concert or be tried for murder. In the case of Millie Sildnes and her family – the focus of Intemperance – only the last reason is likely to bring them to tread its Minton-tiled floor.
An Irish widow with a new husband, a hulking blond Norwegian, 10 years her junior, Millie belongs to the underbelly of society. She squats with her sick father, frustrated teenage son and stroppy daughter among the cellar-slums that the merchant citizens pretend don't exist. It's no place to bring up the baby she's expecting, and Brynjar Sildnes is determined to improve their lot.
For Millie and her family, the doughty Brynjar (Kristofer Gummerus) represents a seed of change. He promises a home in Lime Street within spitting distance of the palatial new St George's Hall (which figures in the play with didactic regularity), and a life away from death, disease and possibly even the devil drink.
In her first full-length drama, Nunnery unwinds the threads holding this fractious family together – ties as knotty as the sisal ropes that Millie unravels to earn a paltry income. That Brynjar could put up with the bitter resentment of his two stepchildren, a termagant of a wife and a dying father-in-law proves his Scandic saintliness.
Though the Irish accents are sometimes hard to decipher, Nunnery's dialogue is robust, her eye for detail is keen and her ear is attuned to the elasticity of language. This is especially the case with old Fergal (Brendan Conroy), whose yarns of his seafaring youth are worthy of the ancient mariner himself.
Nunnery treats her characters sympathetically, especially feisty Millie, given a sterling performance by the admirable Brid Brennan, and her truculent daughter portrayed in some depth by Emily Taffe, making her professional debut.
Gemma Bodinetz's production is taut, Ruari Murchison's set is suitably squalid and while there's a lot of social and historical background to digest, Nunnery keeps her narrative spinning, never allowing moral sustenance and spiritual valour to descend into sentimentality.
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