New Vic Theatre until Saturday 20 April 2019
The Inspector of Nuisances has warned bed-ridden Fergal that if he places any value on his life he’ll limewash the place. “I told him we only buy what we can eat and drink and I don’t fancy drinking limewash.”
The family of five in Intemperance is living in the windowless cellar of a Liverpool slum in 1854. The world places precious little value on their lives and in any case a coat of limewash would not protect them from the cholera raging round them.
At the centre of the family, Millie is looking after her ailing father Fergal and her two headstrong adolescent children, Niamh and Ruairi. Their abusive father died in a drunken stupor and Millie is married now to Norwegian immigrant Brynjar. He stumbled over her ‘lying drunk in a gutter’ on his way to New York, and now she is pregnant again. In a corner of her gloomy single room she picks oakum – as did the inmates of Victorian prisons and workhouses. And, like everyone in her family, she drinks.
“This family is incapable of temperance,” says young Niamh, who is convinced that far from providing a route out of the slum via his promised new job as a clerk, Brynjar is sure to abandon them. When Niamh’s own route out collapses Millie defends her aggressively in public and causes Brynjar to lose his job. All seems lost.
“Brynjar thought we were just plants that he could water and nourish. Tonight he saw us as animals,” Millie cries in anguish. “Whatever he forgives me for, I’ll do worse. But I bleedin’ love him!”
It is the love and loyalty within this family that lifts the play from its austere world, portrayed in perhaps over-long detail in the first act, to a moving conclusion shot through with glimpses of hope. This has nothing to do with the ‘upstairs’ house in Lime Street which Millie will never inhabit, nor with the newly opened grandiose St George’s Hall, product and symbol of Liverpool’s growing wealth, which she will never enter. It is a sense of hope based in their grim reality, and all the more poignant for it.
Krissi Bohn gives us a powerfully combative if careworn Millie, while Øystein Kanestrøm’s Brynjar is a gentler soul whose reassurances seem far too fragile for the circumstances.
John O’Mahony’s Fergal brings much needed light to the grimly-lit room by means of his crystal clear story telling. We’re as gripped by these extended episodes as young Ruairi, on whom they ultimately have their desired effect. When Ruairi says “We all end up dead,” his grandfather replies, “Yes, but some of us live first.”
Fergal’s fantastical stories offer light relief but are also integral to our understanding. He tells Millie how she coveted a certain doll when she was three, how her mother pawned her shoes to buy it for her, how he came home one day to find it smashed to pieces “You said the doll was too pretty and kept looking at you.”
Lizzie Nunnery, who wrote Intemperance in 2007, is also a singer songwriter and has threaded music through her play to give us a greater awareness of the community surrounding the cellar room. Occasionally I found distant fiddle playing lingered too long, distracting from the dialogue, but Director Zoë Waterman and her creative team have masterfully created the feeling of claustrophobia within the non-existent four walls, while giving us a strong sense of its place in the wider world.