Near the beginning of this poignant, vivid new play by Michael Wynne, Maggie hands Simon, her niece’s student boyfriend, a plate piled absurdly high with food. “There you go,” she says, solicitously. “Is that enough?” That generosity also characterises Wynne’s text, which is funny, touching and thoughtful, but somewhat overloaded with themes. The play delves into Liverpool’s past and, watching Rachel Kavanaugh’s warm, witty production, which fills the stage of the newly rebuilt Everyman, there’s a great sense of shared history. It’s just that sometimes it feels as though there are several plays here battling for attention in Maggie’s kitchen.
Commissioned to write about history, Wynne starts by asking whose stories usually count. Rather than focus on Liverpool legends (Beatles and so on) he tells the tale of an ordinary, working-class family. Sixty-five-year-old Maggie has lived on Hope Place (just round the corner from the theatre) all her life: she is the last of her family in a house they have occupied for generations. Her mother’s funeral, the return of her siblings to mark the occasion, and the arrival of Simon with them, all ignite buried memories. Simon, interested in oral history, spies a wealth of material for his PhD and encourages the family to talk to him. It’s a tactic that allows him – and us – to hear about growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s in the sort of moving detail that recreates the texture of life. But for Maggie, it brings the past to life in a way that will prove painful.
So Wynne mulls on different sorts of history – political, social, personal, family, marketable – and the part played by memory and false memory. He also drops in fascinating nuggets of information (such as that the largest workhouse in Europe once stood where the Catholic cathedral now stands) and includes vignettes from the theatre’s own past (an evangelist from the building’s days as a chapel; a singer from its stint as a musical hall). Meanwhile the varying responses of the family members explore how the past impinges on the present.
It’s a rich stew, but it does mean that several issues are not pursued in depth and some characters lack body (Simon in particular). Wynne’s greatest strength is his astute understanding of family interaction and the fine cast rise to this. Joe McGann is wryly funny as the brother-turned-tour-guide and Eileen O’Brien is very moving as Maggie, whose personal journey carries the play’s central question: what do we all remember, and why?