Q & A with Rob Fennah – playwright and producer of BY THE WATERS OF LIVERPOOL

Fans of best-selling author, Helen Forrester, will be delighted to learn that her acclaimed autobiography, By The Waters Of Liverpool, is being brought to life on stage by writer/co-producer Rob Fennah. A long-time friend of Helen, Rob was behind the success of both the musical and stage play versions of Helen’s earlier book, Twopence To Cross The Mersey. We caught up with Rob to ask him about the life of the novelist who inspired him and find out how it feels to be the custodian of someone’s life story.

How did you first meet Helen Forrester?

My background is in pop music and during the late-80s I was given a book called Twopence To Cross The Mersey while waiting to do an interview for a radio station. In it Helen referred to her father as a ‘butterfly in the rain’, a beautiful image that inspired me to write a song of the same title. A little while later, I was invited to meet Helen and perform the song for her. I was delighted when she used it when promoting her books around the world.

You were a young man in a leather jacket and she was a mature lady in tweeds, how did you collaborate artistically?

We got on. In the 1930s, Helen was a young woman trying to forge her way against adversity in an era when it was almost impossible for a female to be independent. I admired her spirit and resilience in refusing to take no for an answer and making her own way in the world. It’s an attitude that chimed with me. Around that time I had had some success with a musical production called First Night. I asked Helen if I could try turning her book, Twopence To Cross The Mersey, into a musical play. She agreed. In 1994, she flew from Canada to attend the premiere at the Empire in Liverpool.

What’s the theme of By The Waters Of Liverpool?

Twopence was about a wealthy family thrown into poverty and having to live with the streetwise working-class people of Liverpool; Helen had to leave school to bring up her younger siblings. The sequel, By The Waters Of Liverpool, is set a few years later. Helen is now a young woman, still living in squalor with two quarrelsome parents, trying to find friends and a social life outside the family home. She is convinced she is going to end up a spinster but then she meets someone and falls in love.

How have your stage adaptations been received by Helen’s family?

Helen saw Twopence as a musical play and enjoyed it so much she was moved to tears. She went on to endorse five further runs of this adaptation. Sadly, Helen passed away in 2011 aged 92. My most recent stage play adaptation of Twopence was endorsed by her son, Robert Bhatia, who came to see the show with his family in 2015. He loved it. As a result, Robert is fully supportive of my adaptation of By The Waters Of Liverpool and I am looking forward to welcoming him and his family to the premiere in October. I have always kept in mind that this is Helen’s story and the script must remain true to the books. While I’m writing I have this image of Helen looking over my shoulder saying, ‘This is my life!’ So, apart from it being a privilege to be entrusted with her most famous works, it’s also a big responsibility.

How do you adapt such a huge book to stage?

Actually, the stage play, By The Waters Of Liverpool, also features a sizeable chunk from Liverpool Miss, Helen’s second volume of autobiography, so it was even bigger job than the Twopence adaptation. And, to get as much story in as possible, we use a technique called ‘story theatre’ where the characters almost become part of the landscape itself. It’s a fluid and very theatrical way of presenting such a big story on stage.

You are the writer and co-producer. How do juggle your creative and business hats?

As someone who has performed on stage for many years myself, the audience are always my main priority. I want everyone to be entertained and go home feeling they’ve had a fantastic night out. It’s all about having a great story, great cast and a talented production team to pull all the elements together.

The sequel to Twopence To Cross The Mersey will have its UK premiere at the Liverpool Empire from Wednesday 3 to Saturday 13 October.

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