'Back to the future': Liverpool Everyman's new rep company takes stock of first season

All eyes on theatre that launched the careers of Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite as it brings back the old repertory model

As the penultimate production in the Liverpool Everyman theatre’s season – Toxteth-set drama The Sum – premieres, and the season starts to draw to a close, all eyes in the theatre world are watching to see if the old rep model can work in a modern age.

While there are other examples of modern repertory companies in the UK where resident actors put on a number of works, such as Dundee Rep and Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, most closed in the 90s due to lack of funding. Union rules restricting actors’ working hours rendered the rep model unaffordable for many theatres, and actors started preferring TV and film work to spending months performing on the same stage.

When Liverpool’s Everyman announced in April last year that it would bring back its repertory company after 25 years, hiring an in-house team of 14 actors to perform five plays over a six-month season, executive director Deborah Aydon insisted that it was not a nostalgic move.

The theatre’s 1970s repertory company was famous for launching the careers of actors from Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite to Bill Nighy and Antony Sher, but Aydon promised that the new company would be fit for the 21st century. “It’s back to the future,” she said.

Gemma Bodinetz, the theatre’s artistic director, said it would take a couple of years before she really knows whether the project has been a success and how comparatively expensive the rep model is, but she describes the past few months as “the most creative period in [her] professional career”.

Having an in-house acting team, who are embedded in a place, produces theatre that is bespoke for your audience, she said. “We try and tell stories that resonate with our time and place,” said Nick Bagnall, associate director at the Everyman. “Liverpool is a very specific audience.”

Bodinetz said The Sum, written by Liverpool playwright and songwriter Lizzie Nunnery, was the perfect example of theatre that reflects the concerns of the community it has been made for. Peppered with Nunnery’s songs, the play follows a young mother as she struggles to make ends meet in a time of austerity, constantly having to do sums in her head to keep her family’s finances balanced.

The fact that the cast members were so used to working with one another also meant the company could be more agile and responsive. The group was in rehearsals for The Sum when news of the snap election came through on their phones. “We weren’t expecting it and we had to quickly think about how we reframe the piece to make it feel like it’s pointing towards a moment in time where there might be a snap election,” said Bodinetz.

Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Glenda Jackson are among a host of actors to have recently called on theatres to re-embrace rep, claiming it is an invaluable training for an actor. McKellen has claimed there would have been “no Derek Jacobi, Mike Gambon or Judi Dench” if it had not been for the rep system.

The productions in the season span an incredible range, from musical Fiddler on the Roof to children’s play The Story Giant, to Brechtian piece The Conquest of the South Pole to The Sum and Romeo and Juliet. All five productions will be re-performed over a three-and-a-half week period from 8 June.

Repertory theatre gets actors to “flex their muscles in every way”, said Bagnall. “There is a reason why – without harking back – people like Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite are such great actors, because they worked in rep. One minute you’re doing a children’s show. The next minute you’re playing Shakespeare.”

Members of the Everyman rep company are regularly stopped in the street by members of Liverpool’s public. “We now belong to them,” says actor Melanie La Barrie. “They aren’t coming to see strangers on the stage.”

Company member Patrick Brennan – known for his work with the RSC and at the National Theatre – said actors working on a freelance basis often felt disenfranchised and uninvested in the organisation they worked in. “That’s not happening here,” he said. “We are members of staff.”

Building a relationship between actors and local communities also helped to promote new work, said Bodinetz. While it was not hard to sell tickets for Fiddler on the Roof or Romeo and Juliet, lesser known works often required a famous face to attract people. In the case of the Everyman rep company, the audience was more willing to go and see a new work as it featured actors they were already familiar with.

Bodinetz said the current political climate made it more important than ever that theatre across the country spoke directly to their surrounding communities. “I have a sense that it’s woken us all up a bit and, more than ever, art needs to reflect a lack of complacency and be relevant and resonant and alive.”

Liverpool alumni

Julie Walters
Born in Birmigham in 1950, Walters first trained as a nurse before studying English and drama at Manchester Polytechnic. She joined the Everyman Rep company in 1974 and performed alongside Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Matthew Kelly. It was at the Everyman that Walters first worked with the writer Willy Russell, who went on to create the play Educating Rita for her.

Pete Postlethwaite
Born in Warrington in 1946, first trained to be a Catholic priest before joining the Liverpool Everyman rep company. Postlethwaite met Julie Walters through the company and the pair had a five-year relationship. They performed together in Willy Russle’s Breezeblock Park in 1975. Postlethwaite received an Academy Award nomination for his role in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father. He died in 2011, aged 64.


Frances Perraudin North of England reporter

The GuardianTramp

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