The Sum review – musical plea from the shop floor

Everyman, Liverpool
Lizzie Nunnery’s scathing social commentary with songs carries a powerful message despite some laboured dialogue

Political shockwaves knock spending. A small business teeters. Shareholders look to profit margins. Costs, counted in employee hours, must be cut. The price paid by the many for the decisions of the few is the subject of Lizzie Nunnery’s new play with music (composed by Vidar Norheim). It follows the misfortunes of a group of shop workers, focusing particularly on Eve and her family: partner (newly sacked); mother (disappearing into dementia); and daughter (taunted at school). Brexit, zero-hours contracts, lack of care for the elderly, a draconian benefit system and anxiety about education all contribute to a downward spiral.

This is a strongly delivered expression of solidarity with hard-working people disadvantaged by a politico-economic system that favours the rich and powerful. As a drama, though, it is frustrating. The problem is not in its genre-mix: songs slip neatly into the action and actors switch nimbly between psychological characterisations and blues-gospel-style choruses (some occasionally join the musicians, heads sticking up from the orchestra pit slap bang in the middle of this in-the-round stage).

Transitions in time and space are also clearly handled: four square platforms, geometrically arranged around the semi-submerged musicians, are emblematically furnished so as to transform in a flash from homeware emporium to private house, to food bank, to park/garden/road verge, public demonstration. And under Gemma Bodinetz’s precise direction, complex changes are handled with an easy fluency that demonstrates the strengths of this rep company (now in its fourth production of the season).

Lizzie Nunnery on The Sum.

The writing, however, is uneven. Too often the dialogue is made to carry too much information – as if acting and staging were mere decorative embellishments; as if audiences have too little imagination to understand situations unless they are heavily outlined by words. Scenes seem drawn out so as to ponderously illustrate points and plotting feels forced. These drama-dulling traits are common among contemporary writers. That said, Nunnery also displays an uncommon talent for crafting speeches of powerful poetic density from everyday language. These are unerringly delivered here, by Laura Dos Santos as Eve, learning that life is not a neat calculation and we are all, separately or together, more than the sum of our parts.

At the Everyman, Liverpool, until 1 July

Contributor

Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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