Review: Her Benny at Royal Court Liverpool ****
There are certain shows and stories that strike a deeply-felt chord with Liverpool audiences.
Blood Brothers is one, and Twopence to Cross the Mersey another. Both are concerned with the everyday struggle with poverty, the desire to make something of your life, the importance of family and kindness and goodness and hope.
Her Benny, Silas K Hocking’s Dickensian tale of Liverpool slum kids hoping for a similar bright new day also falls into that category, which is why it’s been a favourite with generations of young Liverpudlians (classic bedtime reading) and, in recent years through Anne Dalton’s musical adaptation, with theatre audiences.
Now, 25 years after Her Benny was first staged here, and 10 since it was last seen – part of Capital of Culture celebrations – Benny, little Nell, Joe Wragg and Mr Lawrence are back in a production which certainly packs a visual and a musical punch.
Dalton has tweaked the script and had the show re-orchestrated with the help of musical director Greg Last, and the numbers – recorded on a soundtrack rather than played live – are delivered in rousing fashion by the main actors augmented by a massive ensemble.
The size of the company, a luxury usually only seen in the West End, means the scenes, particularly down by the docks and in dissolute Addler's Alley, have a hustle and bustle to them, which is then amplified by Nazene Danielle’s energetic choreography.
Hocking’s tale, a cross between Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and a soupcon of Great Expectations (although with a much sweeter love interest than Estella), is full-on Victorian melodrama, and sometimes, with the booming soundtrack and one or two over-the-top deliveries, it feels a bit over-melodramatic.
In the midst of this musical whirl are Benny Bates and his loyal sister Nell, played on press night by youngsters Louie Gray and Evie Kaufman.
They may be child roles but they are key to the entire plot and certainly aren’t insubstantial, particularly that of the titular Benny, and Gray is an engaging and assured young actor who holds his own in all his scenes and grows in confidence as the story progresses.
Peter Brindle and David Thomas, as kindly (and Godly – Hocking was a Methodist minister and this is a lesson in Christian values and duty after all) Joe Wragg and businessman Mr Lawrence respectively both have big, classically-trained singing voices, while John McGrellis is an enjoyably wily Fagin-like presence in Liverpool’s underbelly.
This is a professional cast, although there are times when as a whole the production itself feels more enthusiastic than theatrically slick. At others, it’s impressively rendered, including the chaotic drunken cavorting outside the Addler's Arms, and a wonderful Hollywood-style celestial chorus which appears in Joe Wragg’s Vision.
On paper it seems rather long at two hours 40 minutes, including interval, although in reality Dalton keeps the action ticking along at a pace, particularly in the first half.
And in the end, Her Benny is an uplifting moral tale and a crowd-pleaser with a warm heart.