Theatre / Scouse Liverpool Everyman

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Following the declaration of Liverpool as an independent republic, messages of support flood in from ETA, the Tamil Tigers, and Cilla Black. This joke in Andrew Cullen's Scouse, encapsulates the play's appeal and its interest exactly: delight in the wit, but a growing unease at its juxtapositions.

Bathos is Cullen's favourite device to exploit the essential strain of Liverpudlian self-mockery. In the hilarious opening scene, the lead character, Tom, working as a tour guide ("it's better than walking the streets"), sees his party melt away from his account of the city's social history as they realise that this is neither the football nor The Beatles tour. As a vignette of Liverpool's present predicament of deprivation, a heroic past cosmeticised into a "heritage", and facile romanticism, as well as an introduction to Paul Broughton's magnificent Tom in all his bluster and dignity, this scene could scarcely be bettered.

The succeeding short scenes present a gallery of local "types". The zaniest is Andrew Schofield as a flasher who gets his thrills listening to Tesco cashiers call "pricecheck"; and the most familiar is Gaynor Spearitt's Tina, the feisty tottie. The style is an interesting mix of community theatre steeped in social history, which flourished in the repertory theatre of 30 years ago, and contemporary TV and stand-up.

But as Scouse progresses, Cullen works steadily against the comic grain. While we are still willing the Liverpool Republic to further Ruritanian excesses, darker events take hold. Demonstrations turn to disturbance, riot police to paras and death squads; there are punishment beatings and shootings; bombings and then reprisals from the Manchester United Volunteer Force. By now the bathos is not so funny. Tom and his family are increasingly involved in the disturbances, and such has been our sympathy for them, especially for the excellent Kate Fitzgerald as Tom's resolute wife, Kath, it looks as though Cullen is in danger of slithering down a treacherous slope of apologia.

But as the ending makes powerfully clear, it is we who are in danger of losing our moral bearings as we struggle to square our empathy with Tom's family and their descent into terrorism. Such nice people... it couldn't happen here... tell us it isn't true.

Cullen's play is an exaltation and a satire of contemporary Liverpool, angry on the city's behalf and angrier still at the consequences of introversion. It also re-ignites community theatre in Liverpool, a feel-good play that leaves you feeling, well, not so good. Which is the best reason Scouse must enjoy the success its resounding first night promises.

To 8 March. (0151 709 4776)

Jeffrey Wainwright

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