The story of Liverpool Football Club is as long as it is intricate, an unrivalled journey that is expertly played out in a show for the ages.
Football on Merseyside is something akin to religion, a way of life and a worldview. The history of Liverpool FC, replete with stories of glorious triumph, hollowing defeats, heroes and villains, tragedies and redemption, is a long and heady one.
Its traditions and tales are passed from one generation to the next, and the task of weaving them all together in a way that entertains, informs and moves an audience is no easy feat.
After seeing Nicky Allt’s magnificent ‘YNWA – The Story of Liverpool Football Club’, I can confidently declare mission accomplished. The show is a triumph.
From the haunting and beautiful rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by newcomer, Lydia Morales-Scully – possibly the best version I’ve heard that wasn’t performed by Gerry Marsden himself, or sung by the Kop – to the spine-tingling ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ this is a tour de force of the Anfield songbook, and yet it’s even more than that.
Entering the old Royal Court Theatre, which has stood on the corner of Liverpool’s Roe Street, overlooked by the magnificent St George’s Hall since 1938, we’re greeted by six gleaming European Cups before being guided to our seats. The balcony overlooking the circle in front of the stage is draped in banners, and before us is a set that resembles all the trappings of every match day. A terrace takes centre stage and to the right is a pub, while on the left a band will provide the sounds. The feelings are familiar, the setting instantly identifiable.
This is the story of a football club, but one told through the eyes of its people, a typical Liverpool family, played by the flawless Mark Morraghan, the brilliant Lindzi Germain and Jake Abraham, Lenny Wood – the willing butt of many a joke, whose comic timing was perfect – and his expert sparring partner, Lydia Morales-Wood.
The performances are also backed up with archive footage and images played on a giant screen above a section of terrace representing the old Spion Kop, and a superb supporting cast which includes Ben Gladwin, Matt Connor, Adam Keast and Daniel Ross help us along our journey.
‘A show for the ages’
We start with the founding of the club, and with Everton president, John Houlding “in the dock” at a meeting of the club’s shareholders, and from here the audience are grabbed by the hand and whisked on an adventure in time, pausing to reflect on key moments, and revisit old heroes.
As the play is written by a Scouse veteran of the Kop and of many a Liverpool away day, you would expect there to be plenty of Scouse in-jokes and digs at the club’s most historic rivals, Everton. You won’t be disappointed. But in the case of the latter, the humour is gentle and even affords the Blues a chance to revel in Liverpool’s relegation misery. Here, Jake Abraham is superb as the jubilant Evertonian whose joy turns to bitterness later in the show.
After discovering the origins of the club and learning of the impact of two World Wars on Liverpool FC and the city, and the famous title-winning side of the 1920s, we are introduced to the age of kings. Here, the audience almost took the roof off the old place as the stories of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish were retold and the glory years played out before their eyes.
When you see this show, as you must, look out for the hilarious team talk featuring Dalglish (Mark Morraghan) and Peter Beardsley (Jake Abraham). You will also be treated to a typically Liverpudlian treatment of the Harry Enfield Scousers trope. However, in dealing with the ’80s, we are forced to face our two greatest sources of heartbreak. And you could hear a pin drop as the cast skillfully dealt with the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough.
The way in which the play switches gear between the glittering success, exuberance and humour of the ’70s and ’80s and the grim reality of two sporting tragedies, that needlessly claimed so many lives, is quite an achievement. To then lift a crowd weighed down with sorrow for the coming chapters in the club’s history was even more remarkable.
To say it was effortless does a disservice to the actors, whose performances were as skilled as they were deeply moving, but that’s how it appeared to me.
And so it was that we arrived at the Jurgen Klopp era, via Souness, Evans, Houllier, Benitez, Hodgson (mercifully briefly) and Rodgers. Along the way, we visit the treble-winning season of 2001 and of course Istanbul. And, thanks to Klopp, the show is assured of a happy ending and a raucous finale.
This was genuinely one of the best nights I’ve had at the theatre, and the performances were worth every second of the standing ovation they received. After the nerve-shredding and exhausting end to last season, it was everything we needed and more, as we face yet another epic season of ups and downs.
I suspect it will always be that. This is, after all, a Liverpool FC show for the ages.
The show runs from August 30 to September 3 at Liverpool’s Royal Court, you can find more details here.