Sophie Arthur

‘By The Waters of Liverpool’: An Interview with Maria Lovelady as ‘Helen Forrester’

There seemed nothing better than sitting down to chat with the ever lovely Maria Lovelady about her performance as Helen Forrester in the new production, ‘By The Waters of Liverpool’, recently. Here’s what we chatted about over a cup of tea…

What’s it like to be able to play a part in the telling of a true story because you’ve been Helen before, haven’t you?

It’s amazing because there’s just so much to draw from in real life. She wrote 4 books and I’ve met her son as well. Rob, the writer, was also really close friends with her, so you’ve just got so much to draw from. Naturally, you still have to create the character yourself because it’s a theatrical, dramatised version. But, there’s just so much extra information that I know, that isn’t in the show, that helped me to create “My Helen”.

It’s a big pressure though. Her son and grandson came to watch it the first time and it was the most nervous I’ve ever been because I just thought, “What if it’s completely wrong?” But, they were so lovely and really impressed so that was a huge relief!

How much collaboration were you able to have to create “Your Helen”?

I never got to meet her sadly, but because Rob knew her and because of the books I felt like I did. There comes a point though where you do have to fill in the gaps because I don’t know how she stood, how she spoke and that kind of thing, I sort of had to make that up myself. I studied the period as well though and was able to see pictures of her when she was older and draw it all together.

Tell me a little bit about the process in the rehearsal room. Was there a script to work from or did you work from the novel? How did you go about it?

Both times we’ve only had a matter of weeks in the rehearsal room, so we’ve been working really fast, but it’s good because it makes you learn the lines and make a choice fast about how you want to play it. I often think though our first impulse is usually right. I read all of the books on my own and some interviews with Helen, because the books just go into so much detail about how she was thinking and feeling that sometimes I might be on stage, thinking about something that happened to her that isn’t actually mentioned in the show.

What’s been different this time though, is because last time she was 11-14, there’s a lot in this book where I’ve already been through that journey. She meets her grandma in this performance – I don’t know if that’s a spoiler alert – but in the first one, she was always talking about wanting to meet her grandma, but she just can’t afford to go and see her. I didn’t really have to prepare for those scenes because we’d done so many shows last time that I had those feelings inside still.

Are there any elements or themes you feel link to our lives nowadays?

Yes, definitely! I think it’s still a really relevant topic now, the poverty and taking women out of education to make them be nannies, mothers, looking after the kids. I think it’s actually still happening and that this show does it from a distance, so it’s not in the audience’s face. Her brother Alan, no one ever asked him to do anything, but they were actually quite similar in age: he was allowed to go to school, to get a job, to go and do his RAF training and Helen wasn’t allowed to do anything and that’s purely because she’s a girl. I think there’s a lot of women’s movements at the moment that stem from people like Helen, when she originally wrote the books saying, “This just shouldn’t have happened. It just shouldn’t.” It’s people like her pointing it out that have got us to this point now where it is obvious that a woman should go to school and shouldn’t be any different to a boy. That to me is something that is really important.

Last time we did it, there was a Labour Party conference which was happening at the same time. A lot of them came to see the show and I met them after and they said, “people still live like this and we don’t talk about it”. We call it ‘the olden days’ but it’s not and there’s still girls staying off school because their mums need help, there’s young carers or there’s those who don’t have enough to clean themselves with. Doing this play puts it through a different lens, so it’s as intense, but it is still going on.

What questions kept reoccurring in your rehearsal room?

What Gareth, the director of this show, has been really keen on showing is that everyone thinks about the past like they were ‘the good old days’ and they weren’t. Everyone always says, “Oh everything was better back then” and “We had it better” and actually they didn’t, not always. People forget the bad bits, which is just a part of human nature, but that’s something that’s kept coming back. It’s not saying that everything was perfect then and now our society is ruined! There’s always been good people and bad people, good things and bad things.

How does the history of the world since this was written impact on the performance?

Things like the accent, not so much in this but still the RP – the “posh voice” – was very different then to how it is now. I’m from Widnes so it’s a bit of a stretch! I’ve done RP before, but it’s getting it right for that period. It’s just one of those things that changes over the years. In this production it’s softening a bit because she’s been here for 8 years, so it’s not as clear.

You’re even having to adapt your character from the first one almost?

Yes, and that’s what’s important. She’s not a little girl anymore, she’s a woman and it’s about time things changed! Her parents though are still treating her like a little girl.

How easy have you found it to portray the relationships between the characters on a stage, especially when they’re real people and her son is still around now?

I think that’s going back to the books and Helen’s thoughts – what she thought about her mum, what she thought about her dad – it’s all there in black and white. It’s just having those thoughts in my head while I’m portraying her. The pressure is just on, and I think the first show and the books are just so loved by so many people, especially in this area, that everyone’s got their own version of Helen and you have to try and please everybody! It comes to a point where you just have to shove that out of the way and go “this is how I’ve chosen her to be” and thankfully it’s been ok so far!


Did you have to go back to your previous role and think “how did I do this the first time”?

It was so much of muscle memory, we just slipped into it! Especially Emma and I – she was my mum in the last one – and they have so many rows, Helen and her mum, that we just slipped into it, like she is my mum! We’ve got new characters now though and so it was working out how she is with these new characters. In the first one, she’s at home a lot and everyone she meets come to her, but in this one, she goes out to work and she’s meeting a whole different group of people – she meets a pimp, she meets a scary boss figure – and she’s not been in education for years so she’s not had anyone to answer to like that.


Did you feel more pressure this time knowing the show was so loved, just like the books?

Yes! Yes! Yes! Everyone loved it last time and so now they’re all coming to see it again and it’s trying to justify why the rest of her story needs to be told, I think hopefully we’re doing that! I think there’s more fun in this because she goes out and learns to dance, she meets boys and I think there’s much more light-heartedness in this one. I think the last one was a real struggle, but with this one, you see the struggle and the fun she then has as a young woman!

‘By the Waters of Liverpool’ will be at the Liverpool Empire from 3rd October until 13th October, to book tickets, look here:

Photo Credit and Cover Photo courtesy of Anthony Robling.

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