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Penny Readings Reviewed

The 3rd Annual Penny Readings
Small Island by Andrea Levy

Organisers: Liverpool Reads and The Reader
St. George’s Hall, Liverpool
Sunday December 3rd, 2006

St. Georges Hall in Liverpool 2006

St. George's Hall


St George's Hall, Liverpool: the finest neo-classical building in Europe. Designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, building commenced in 1842, with the hall openning in September 1854. With its splendid chandeliers and gilded plasterwork is one of the best assembly halls in Britain, what better place to honour one of its most famous admirers, Charles Dickens, than by holding the third annual Penny Readings in the hall’s Small Concert Room.

Dickens read before a packed audience in January, 1862 and later remarked: “The beautiful room was crammed to excess last night, and numbers were turned away. Its beauty and completeness when it is lighted up are most brilliant to behold; and for a Reading it is simply perfect.”

High praise indeed and the audience then, as tonight, were charged a single penny to attend, such was the great writer’s wish that his stories be told to as many people as possible.

In a nutshell, that is the ethos behind Liverpool Reads. One book is selected and distributed throughout Liverpool for free, so that reading is encouraged in those who might otherwise find their kicks in front of the TV. Judging by the five hundred or so who turned out on a particularly foul night, this year’s selection – Small Island by Andrea Levy, of which 13,000 copies are set to be distributed free of charge – is on target to enhance further the initiative’s growing reputation.

With some of the organisers suitably dressed in Victorian clothes, the evening got underway in fine style with music being played by Steelharmony, a Caribbean steel band, who set the tone of the evening by playing carols in a most innovative way, seeing how Small Island tracks the lives of West Indian immigrants to the UK shortly after the war.

Brookside actress Gillian Kearney hosted proceedings superbly well and introduced actress Nadine Marshall, who played the part of Hortense recently on BBC Radio 4, re-enacted the part from Small Island in such a compelling way – bringing the section to life through interpretation and mannerism – it was a joy to see the audience so entranced.

Editor of the Liverpool Echo, Alastair Machray, then read the opening section of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – the bit where Earth is vaporised – before Angela Heslop, BBC Radio Merseyside’s Art’s Producer, read from Jane Eyre so beautifully, it was easy to close ones eyes and picture the scene.

More music followed, with Hope Harmony Choir entertaining the audience with a very different, close harmony version of Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree that only served to underline their obvious collective talents. Whereas Daywalker Acoustic provided a fitting version of The Beatles Penny Lane ( Penny Reads / Penny Lane … get it?) with the duo saying they were honoured to have been invited. “Some of the greatest bands in the world have played Liverpool,” vocalist Dave Robinson said. “But none of them have played here. Isn’t this room beautiful? Thank you so much for inviting us.”

Gillian Kearney and Max Alder, Arts Faculty Manager of Liverpool University, then acted a scene from Taming Of The Shrew, before Drumond Bone, Chair of the Liverpool Culture Company, read a piece written by Lord Byron with such implicit expertise it made those who heard it wish the reader had been their teacher when studying English Literature at A level.

The best, however, was very much saved until last, as Phillip Davis, Professor of English at Liverpool University, read the Cratchit Christmas Lunch section from A Christmas Carol so superbly, it was possible to smell the meagre meal being cooked, as well as the despair of the poor family in every word Professor Davis spoke.

A truly wonderful version of Oh Come All Ye Faithful, again sung by Hope Harmony Choir, closed the evening with barely a voice in the hall not joining in.

The Penny Reads 2006 was, quite simply, two hours of beautifully staged, traditional Christmas entertainment that should be embraced by the city so it can grow and grow. Indeed, if there is any justice, the event will prove so popular next year the organisers will be forced hire the Main Hall in this fine building to accommodate an ever growing audience. If that does prove to be the case, and to paraphrase Tiny Tim: “God bless them, everyone.”

Andrea Levy, author of Small Island, will be reading from and signing copies of her novel at Liverpool Central Library on January 11th. Contact Liverpool Reads for more information.

“Great article on the Penny Readings - I'm glad people enjoyed the eclectic mix of performers! It's great to have so much public support for literature events.”
Bea Colley - Liverpool



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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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