Remember Anthology, the series of immersive promenade performances created by the Everyman in conjunction with Slung Low Theatre Company?
You were handed an item (a wooden spoon, a bootlace, that kind of thing), put on a pair of headphones and set off on a mysterious journey around the streets of Liverpool.
Well the Leeds-based company is back in town, in an audacious and hugely ambitious collaboration with what appears to be the entire student population of LIPA – certainly the largest show the college has ever staged.
This time the audience is plunged in to the drama surrounding the Spanish Civil War, and the impact it had on Liverpool (around 200 Liverpudlians fought in the International Brigades and 30 died, while funds were raised to send overseas).
It’s 1937, the war is raging, and the Merseyside Left Theatre is having a raucous fundraiser to collect donations to help with the fight against fascism.
Red and Black. Top: Merseyside Left Theatre Fundraiser. Photos by Sam Heath
And it’s quite a party, in a seemingly disused, or at least shabbily distressed, double height room in LIPA’s Mount Street building, where men in flat caps or with impressive moustaches and women with rolled hair, mingle with their audience, dispensing good cheer and (non-alcoholic) beer to the frantic beat of a live band.
A few rousing speeches, a heartfelt song and a soldier’s pledge later, the lights go out and it’s a rapid rush to find your ‘guide’, depending on the item you’ve been handed at the door.
Then you’re off on your adventure. In my case, a satsuma leads me to motherless 10-year-old Jack, whose dad has left him in to an orphanage and sailed off to Santander to fight.
As part of ‘Jack’s pack’, we creep through doorways, up and down stairs and along corridors, dodging fearsome matrons and bullying boys, and happening upon some weird and wonderful mind-bending tableaux, crazy antics and poignant scenes on the way.
Red and Black's final scene. Photo by Sam Heath
The complex interwoven stories, creatively developed by the LIPA students, never actually intertwine, but there are near misses. On our odyssey we see a strange man in a fedora doing mind tricks for one group on a landing, and pass within nodding distance of George Orwell and his followers in a courtyard.
These glimpses mean it’s tempting to return to follow different stories through different universes.
The performers are impressively immersed in their 1937 world, and the more you’re willing to immerse yourself too, the more you’ll get out of it.
Which is why we find ourselves holding hands in a circle as lonely Jack sings a song about his dad, playing roulette with a pair of lithe and crazy Spanish senoritas, and standing in solemn silence is a ladies’ loo as some bad news is revealed.
While the story paths might be separate, all roads lead to a finale which must look spectacular in the darkness of the second performance each night, but which even in the apricot glow of a glorious May evening manages to create a real impression, with the massed ranks lifting their voices in a poignant musical performance of Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang.