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Jonathan Harvey: ‘Good drama should challenge you and go to places that you think that you might not want to go.’

18 months into the Doomsday pandemic, Liverpool’s Everyman theatre has re-opened and restaged Jonathan Harvey’s Our Lady of Blundellsands.

This twisted new play – that ran for just five performances before the first national lockdown in March 2020 – tells the story of the Domingo family who have plenty of skeletons in their closets. 

Harvey – best known for the cult sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme and the astounding 1990s gay coming-of-age drama Beautiful Thing — is one of Liverpool’s most acclaimed writers and on good form as we chat via Zoom. “I wanted to write a play that on the surface is a comedy but is telling some dark truths about how f***** up this family is,” Harvey explains.

Beautiful Thing (1996) Film4 Productions, World Productions

“Good drama should challenge you and go to places that you think that you might not want to go. I’m really interested in twisted, dark secrets really.”

Nick Bagnall’s deliciously dark production boasts an impressive ensemble of actors, all of whom relish the chance to sink their teeth into Harvey’s witty dialogue. One liners whiz across the stage like poison arrows, some of them loaded with genuine moments of hilarity and melancholy. Josie Lawrence plays Sylvie, a tragic Norma Desmond figure basking in the long-faded glory of a cameo on ‘Z-Cars’ during the sixties. 

There’s an almost vaudevillian edge to several of the play’s most inventive set pieces, with tragedy smacking up against emotional slapstick to bizarrely comic effect. What, I ask, are his favourite things about the Our Lady of Blundellsands cast this time around? “Three of them weren’t in it before so they have done a terrific job of slotting in,” he says.

“Josie Lawrence is incredible and never misses a laugh, she knows how to give an audience what they want,” he says. “I have been a massive fan of Mickey Jones for years, Gemma Brodrick, who plays Alyssa, just really cracks me up and is that authentic Liverpool voice, Jo Howarth inhabits the role and has found a real playfulness to the character. Nathan is an actor I’ve worked with the most, and he’s great, versatile, and very bright and Nana is solid, and you feel very safe whenever he’s on stage.”  

Josie Lawrence as Sylvie in Our Lady of Blundellsands

Our Lady of Blundellsands is Harvey’s 25th stage play and reunites him with director Nick Bagnall, who acted in Hushabye Mountain in the 90’s. I ask what makes their partnership so special. “Listen, I’ve worked with a lot of directors who haven’t worked with a living writer before,” he stresses. 

“Nick really understands the play and we are very much on the same page. He’s just inventive, he never loses his temper. That level of patience is impressive. Nick gets my writing, and some directors don’t like the writers’ giving notes or being involved and he welcomes it. I think the world of him.” 

Jonathan Harvey & director Nick Bagnall in rehearsal

Harvey is a dream, a delight, a gift of an interview. After around an hour of this endlessly revealing, completely surprising, incredibly funny, virtual discourse, I ask him if he finds reviews useful? Harvey nods. “Yeah, sometimes they are helpful. Of course, its lovely to get nice reviews – but you just have to learn what they are about. For the writer, though, you know when you haven’t got it quite right.”

He continues: “You know when the play is fifteen minutes too long, and you can either sort it out or you’ve not quite worked out how to do it. What critics will pick up on are the places you think are a bit sh** as well, but you haven’t had the time or the brain to fix them.” 

So what is the secret of a good play? “Not too long. Have a f****** interval,” he says, smiling. “Make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait is my mantra.” 

And, finally, what does he make of fellow Liverpudlian Nadine Dorries, the newly appointed culture secretary? “Interesting,” he says diplomatically. “I’d really love to know what the last five plays she has seen are.”

It was so lovely to hang out with you on Zoom. Had a hoot. And it’s so often not like that, he emails later. I thank him wholeheartedly for his wicked play, and for his honesty.

Our Lady of Blundellsands is at the Everyman, Liverpool until 9 October 2021.