When the people of Liverpool were asked what they would like to remain in their newly rebuilt Everyman Theatre they wanted three things.
There was the famous Bistro, where vegetarians, radicals and artists have been arguing over the risotto since back in the 1970s.
They voted to keep the thrust stage previously trod by the likes of Julie Walters, the late Pete Postlethwaite, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Bernard Hill and Trevor Eve among a glittering cast of alumni whose names will forever be associated with the place.
And finally there was the trademark neon sign whose dodgy electrics in recent years had often led to the theatre being mistaken for a branch of the stationery chain Ryman.
They all remain in the wake of the £28m rebuild – only all are bigger and considerably posher.
What cannot be designed into a building – no matter how much consultation or Arts Council millions are pumped in – is the extraordinary maverick spirit of this great romantic city which brought the touch of bohemian greatness to the leaky and cramped former chapel.
The building, with its panoramic balconies gazing down Hope Street affording fine views of the two extraordinary cathedrals, is an undoubted smash. Five thousand Scousers turned up on the open weekend to give it the once over.
Yet artistic director Gemma Bodinetz is under little illusion that it must succeed artistically if it is to justify the money spent and the optimism surrounding the completion of the work.
So what of the opening play? Twelfth Night was chosen because it was felt to reflect the ethos of the Liverpool, its rich array of characters as well as the new mission statement of the theatre itself encapsulated in Feste’s final lines: ‘And we’ll strive to please you every day’.
Judging by the audience reaction they certainly succeeded in doing so with this colourful, brash production which squeezed every ounce of bawdy humour out of Shakespeare’s source material.
In the casting there is a nod back to that celebrated class of 74 with Matthew Kelly as Sir Toby Belch. But the prevailing mood was looking forward rather than one of nostalgia.
There were some really strong performances alongside Kelly, who was pleasingly rumbustious in the role of the sozzled uncle. Nicholas Woodeson was outstanding as Malvolio switching seamlessly from brilliant comic villain to victim whilst Paul Duckworth was a superb Feste.
These are clearly the beginnings of exciting times for the theatre – one which aims to remain indivisible for the people of the city it serves. The everyman ambition– reflected not just in the giant red neon letters over the entrance but in the portraits of more than 100 local people build into the fabric of the fascia - is a noble one.
But Liverpool is a place transformed over the past decade. No longer in decline, it is growing economically, smartened up and bristling with museums, galleries, restaurants and designer shops luring Scandinavian tourists and well-heeled city breakers by the plane load.
It is an entirely different place from the crumbling politically-charged dock city of the 1970s and 80s. It will be fascinating to see what happens.
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