Liverpool has always embraced Twopence to Cross the Mersey as intrinsically its own. But according to the man behind the successful stage musical version of Helen Forrester’s riches to rags autobiography, it has a resonance which spreads much further afield.
“Twopence to Cross the Mersey is an international bestseller,” says Rob Fennah, who created the musical with brother Alan 21 years ago. “It’s sold over a million copies in Britain alone, and it’s still part of the National Curriculum.
“On Sky Arts the other day (journalist and author) Caitlin Moran was holding it up as a book everyone should read.
“She said had it not been for Twopence to Cross the Mersey she wouldn’t have escaped the poverty she lived in and become the person that she is today.”
It’s a number of years since Merseyside audiences had the chance to see Twopence – one of four volumes of autobiography Forrester, real name June Bhatia, wrote – at the Empire.
But now it’s being brought back to the stage in a new version, as a straight play, opening at the Epstein Theatre before a mini tour to Southport, St Helens and New Brighton.
“I’ve always wanted to tour with it,” reveals Rob. “But it was designed for the Empire, and in order to tour it, it has to be more attuned to theatres around the country.
“So I brought it back to what it should be, which is a straight stage play. But I didn’t want it to just be a watered down version of what we’d done before, it wouldn’t be fair on the people who’d already seen it.”
This Twopence has a new script, new set, and, in Bob Eaton, a new director with his own ideas about how the tale should be presented.
He explains: “I think the thing I brought to it was working in narrative, storytelling theatre. It’s what I call open-handed theatre, whereby you make no pretence that you’re not a load of actors doing it.”
Bob, who penned Lennon the musical and who has worked extensively with the Liverpool Royal Court, learned the storytelling technique years ago under Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent.
It was picked up by Shared Experience theatre company, and then by Trevor Nunn at the RSC.
“It means you’ve got a company of actors who can play more than one part quite easily,” Bob adds. “And they can also take on some of the narrative, so you don’t have to cram all the information you want to give into the dialogue.”
Once they decided on the distinct storytelling style, Rob wrote the new script accordingly.
It will be performed on tour by a cast of eight, including Eithne Browne and Jake Abraham, and newcomer Maria Lovelady as the young Helen.
“This show has never ever been about Rob Fennah, or the Empire, or anybody else,” Rob insists. “People come to see Helen Forrester’s book come to life.
“Having spoken to Helen after the previous productions and discussed with her the possibility of touring, I’m really pleased to think if she was alive today and came to see it, she’d recognise 100 percent her book on stage.
“And I think she’s be thrilled at this really imaginative way of doing it.”
Forrester died at home in Canada in 2011, but her son Robert is flying over to see the new version.
Twopence to Cross the Mersey is at the Epstein Theatre from March 10-28, Southport Theatre from April 9-11, St Helens Theatre Royal from April 14-16, and the Floral Pavilion from April 19-23.