Once there was a way… that a city would celebrate its most famous sons by way of a day of indoctrinated cheap mop top wig-wearing, or a street festival so drunken and rowdy it eventually had to be banned.
A new festival from Culture Liverpool to mark the half-centenary of The Beatles’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, it will bring 13 “brand new commissions and world premieres” to Liverpool, each inspired by a song on the record.
It’s a fascinating idea that has been realised to a stupendously high standard. Pick up a programme and it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by the scope of the vision behind what is happening. Even compared to 2008, Capital of Culture year, I don’t think the city’s ever seen a single event with this much of a wide-reaching cultural wow factor. There’s no showy, bolshy, Scouse-on-parade nonsense; instead, local companies and playwrights are working together with internationally renowned talent, like Jeremy Deller and METAL; Improbable and Toxteth-based youth theatre 20 Stories High, to create art, inspired by art, like we’ve never seen it before.
It kicked off with Pepperland, an ‘overture’ for the fest and a new dance piece from Seattle choreographer Mark Morris, presented with support from our own MDI (Merseyside Dance Initiative). Morris has been described as the most influential choreographer alive by the New York Times; and to see Liverpool Royal Court full with an enthusiastic audience for four performances of contemporary dance – something this city doesn’t always seem to appreciate – was unexpected but so encouraging.
By accident and not by design, I ended up with a two-year-old in tow, but was fairly confident the colours, jaunty tunes and bouncy movement would be entertaining for even the tiniest theatregoer, and they were. Pepperland is a bright and expressive, joyful piece that journeys loosely through some of Sgt Pepper’s highlights and throws in the affiliated Penny Lane for good measure. Block colours, a sometimes cartoonish light of step, and of course beautiful music, so well known, all came together for an irresistible, dream-like hour.
With a Sixties-style ensemble more swingin’ than an Austin Powers intro scene, and an American pizazz to the score – a bit more Broadway than Bootle, thanks to the quirky arrangement by Ethan Iverson and delightfully smooth vocals of Clinton Curtis, this was a remarkably polished piece of dance that was easily accessible. All-embracing and playful, it honoured its original source while bringing a new way of doing things to the table – and so, setting the stall out for the rest of Sgt Pepper at 50, which looks set to do the same.
Now, it could be that this is just the navel-gazing wittering of someone who reads the Guardian’s art pages too much; but ultimately, the Sgt Pepper at 50 programme is a real cultural feast, and something any art lover in the city should take every opportunity to explore and support. A lot of it is free, and family-friendly. It’s happening all over the place, at all times of day and night. It’s not mainstream; it’s something much more exciting than that.
Whether it’s catching a reading of Luke Barnes’s latest play at the Ye Crack or Paul McGann reading at the Atheneum before you go to work on June 9 (inspired by Good Morning, Good Morning, natch), or joining in a musical street parade of traffic wardens on Hope Street (for Lovely Rita), it’s a festival of innovation, artistry, big ideas and crazy dreams. Everyone is welcome. Try something out; we need to support colourful, creative, inventive endeavours like these. That’s not to say the artists and theatre makers in this city are not doing great work all the time, because they most definitely are; it’s just something about Sgt Pepper at 50 feels fresh and genuinely exciting, and seems to be allowing creative expression and risk on a large scale in a sector where that’s seldom a viable option.