The Liverpool Everyman Rep company is about to open its fourth play of the inaugural season at Hope Street.
And after a musical, a mind-bending meditation on purpose and dignity in life, and a journey in to a magical storytelling world, comes a new play which asks - how far would you go to make ends meet?
Liverpool playwright and composer Lizzie Nunnery has penned The Sum, set in austerity Brexit Britain and told with the aid of ‘toe-tapping tunes and melancholy blues’.
Here, Lizzie speaks to Arts City Liverpool about bringing The Sum to the stage.
How long since you first conceived the idea for The Sum?
It’s about four-and-a-half years. I realised in rehearsals the other day when we were discussing how old Eve the central character is, that in the character list she’s still 31, and it struck me that when I started writing it we were the same age. And I’m now nearly 35.
So I’ve aged and Eve has stayed where she is.
Lizzie Nunnery (credit Chris Thomond)
Where did the idea come from?
It was from reading an article about women in Britain selling their hair, that was the starting point. And it really struck me as a metaphor and also as a horrible reality. Traditionally the market for hair extensions has come from India and China, and more and more people within our own country are supplying the hair.
And it was partly thinking – who’s that woman who sells her hair? What pressure is she under? What’s making her do that? If she’ll do that, what else will she sell?
That last question was the thing a story grew from. How far would any of us be prepared to go if we’ve got to look after our mother, got to look after our child?
It was exciting to feel like I’d found quite a universal story, and also potentially found a way to write about austerity and all the anger that I’d been feeling for a long time.
Have things changed in the wider world much in that time, and how have you reflected that in the current version of The Sum?
I think I was probably hopeful at that stage that we’d turn a corner with austerity, that it couldn’t possibly go on for so long or keep running people in to the ground.
And actually, sadly, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s probably why I’ve continued to write the play beyond the radio version. Why the Everyman then commissioned it for the stage, because it did still feel relevant.
It’s been fascinating trying to write a really contemporary political play, and do that in quite an unashamed way. But also do that through individual characters, a developed family story.
So it’s not really a play that preaches politics at all, it’s a play that shows how politics operates within people’s lives, the force that politics enacts on people.
Emily Hughes and Liam Tobin in rehearsals for The Sum (credit Brian Roberts)
You mentioned the original radio version. The Sum was broadcast on Radio 4 with a cast of four. Now you have 14 on stage, including two musicians.
It’s a core cast of six now. We have Eve, who is the central character, her mother Iris, her daughter Lisa – it’s really exciting actually playing around with three generations of women in a family, that’s drawn out a lot of interesting material.
There’s Danny, who is Eve’s partner, and then Alan who is Eve’s boss, and Steph who is Eve’s best friend who also works in the shop with her.
And then the other six on stage are other people who work in the same hardware store as Eve, and go through parallel journeys, because they all have their hours reduced at the same time as Eve, they’re all on zero hour contracts.
There’s something really fascinating thinking about how those different characters’ stories might play out under similar circumstances. The different places those characters will be pushed to.
Some of those characters, for instance, might be drawn together by that hardship, and beautiful things can come out of it as well as difficult things.
How did you feel when you heard The Sum was going to form part of the first Rep company season?
I didn’t expect it and it was such a thrill when I had that moment of Gemma (Bodinetz) telling me that the play would be done by the company, and explaining what that meant, that she would therefore direct it and at that stage there would be 14 actors that may or may not be in the cast, and my mind immediately went – I could use 14 actors!
As a playwright, you’re so used to being limited with cast numbers.
Laura Dos Santos plays the central character Eve (credit Brian Roberts)
Would you call it a musical or a play with music?
I think we’re calling it a play with music because musical sets up certain expectations about the number of dance routines. There’s a tone more than anything, the tone and style of it. There are 11 songs. It’s a lot of music, and a lot of underscoring. I do think it straddles the ground between a play with songs and a musical. There’s a definite question about what it is.
A bit like Tim Firth’s This Is My Family.
Yes, I think that kind of territory in terms of the way songs and scenes interact, it’s quite a good reference. It’s characters singing because they don’t have the words to say it in dialogue, and we go to these private places.
The character of Iris, who has dementia, is able to sing about her dementia to the audience and really we’re hearing her secret thoughts in that moment.
That’s one of the really thrilling things you can do with music that you get a different access to characters and their interior worlds.
Like all the Everyman Rep season shows, this production is being staged in the round.
It feels like it’s just the right configuration for this story as well. I love theatres in the round. I love the kind of community feel you immediately get.
You’re looking past the actors at other audience members and so you’re constantly aware of other people’s reactions. It goes back to Greek theatre doesn’t it and theatre in the round? Society looking in on itself and asking itself questions.
And that’s absolutely perfect for this story, where I’m trying to ask questions about now and how we feel about ourselves in the current politics.
The Sum is at the Liverpool Everyman from May 6-20. Tickets HERE.