The Gladstone Theatre, Port Sunlight
September 28 – October 1
Author / Composer: Brian McCann
Producer: Active Drama
Cast: Suzanne Collins, Lesley Butler, Roy Brandon, Lynne Fitzgerald, Samuel Raymond Heller, Edwina Lea.
Running Time: 2 hours
PR Rating: ***** Life Affirming
James Stewart may have made A Wonderful Life a classic movie, but Brian McCann has made the wonderful Life a really great musical comedy drama currently at The Gladstone Theatre in Port Sunlight that really does have everything.
The show follows the life, loves triumphs and heartbreaks of Veronica Shuttle from the age of six and what ensues from the moment the lights go up until they finally dim once more, is two hours of theatrical magic.
Playing Veronica is Suzanne Collins. As many stage productions and TV shows the audience may well have seen Suzanne appear in, it is a fair guess that they haven’t seen her perform with such emotionally charged vigour as she does here.
It is especially impressive as in doubling as both narrator of her own character’s storyteller as the action that unfolds, Ms. Collins is never off the stage. At the end, and particularly during one particularly emotive scene mid-way through Act 2, the actress and the audience are visibly weeping in unison. That’s how good a performance the actress puts in.
Regulars at Liverpool’s theatres will recognise Lenny Wood as playing with full on hilarity the “fall guy” and somewhat “clueless” character in plays such as Lost Soul, A Fistful of Collars, Council Depot Blues and a whole host of others. What we don’t necessarily recognise him for, however, is playing characters of hugely changing dynamics or depth. Lesley is everything you would expect from a Lenny Wood character initially … nice but somewhat dim.
Then as Life rolls on and as the everyday becomes the norm and so takes its toll, so does Lesley change. In the hands of a lesser actor, this evolution might appear somewhat stark. With Lenny Woods in control though, Lesley changes by such infinitesimal degrees so that we barely recognise one character from the other and this alone stands as testament indeed to the actor’s brilliance.
Lesley Butler as Veronica’s quick tempered mum and Roy Brandon as her laid back dad are a comedy match made in heaven. Butler, on stage following a serious illness, is – somewhat remarkably considering – all zip and zest, whereas Brandon merely has to walk on stage in any guise and laughs are virtually guaranteed. Life is a play tailor made for these two stalwarts and both have clearly taken the roles to their hearts and embraced them fully.
The theatrical turbine that is Lynne Fitzgerald as both Shelly and, particularly, Veronica’s Gran is – as always – are an absolute joy. Her mannerisms as both the child and the pensioner are absolutely spot on, with her comic timing shining like a match in the darkness.
In the roles of multiple characters are both stage newcomers Samuel Raymond Heller and Edwina Lea. Both featured in the recent hit musical Moggies, yet here they step even further and deeper into the spotlight’s glare and both truly excel. Go grab yourselves a pen, jot down their names and remember where you first saw them because both are almost certainly guaranteed big futures if their performances in Life are anything to go by.
Yet the true winner and stand out of the night is the story itself; a thing of beauty which encompasses the whole emotional gamut so that nothing enacted will anything but resonate with everybody who sees it.
This is thanks to Brian McCann whose lightness of touch, lyrical placement, deeply personal understanding of what works and an overall passion for what he does and what he wants to achieve is laid bare here. The observational dexterity that is such a constant element in Life, both fictional and in reality, is so well constructed the journey is a genuine pleasure to undertake until its final destination is reached.
Full of laugh-out-loud comedy and sprinkled with more than a few pass-me-a-tissue moments, a whole bevy of great and fitting tunes and a story assured to warm the cockles of the sternest and stoniest of hearts, Life is certainly the sum of its parts and is quite undoubtedly one of the best productions I have been privileged to see this year.