LIZZIE NUNNERY is a Liverpool writer. When watching her award-winning theatre or listening to her nationally celebrated music, it’s clear that she is a woman with a strong connection to the city in which she has lived for most of her life. So, meeting her in Liverpool City Library, a place where she occasionally holds writing sessions for members of the public to ask her questions or show her their creative writing, was the most appropriate place for a natter about her new play, NARVIK (sub-titled A Play With Songs).
After a brief chat about her day and her love of the new snazzy library, we begin to explore her life in music and theatre. It all started for Lizzie Nunnery with a guitar: “I still have a notepad full of lyrics,” she says, remembering her teenage years performing acoustic music on the Liverpool open-mic scene. “I would perform at a night called Acoustic Engine.” Acoustic Engine was an open mic night set up in the early 00s by Steve Roberts of 16 Tambourines, an event where Lizzie first discovered her love for performance. “At the time there was a great scene, there was a lot going on, a lot of people came through those nights like Tramp Attack and Dave McCabe from The Zutons.” After these early flirtations with music and performance, Lizzie went to university and wrote her very first play, and this is where the ball really started rolling. Well, kind of… “My first play was about my life as a student. It was a comedy. People laughed. It was alright. Once you start researching, though, you realise that there are other things out there that are fascinating… things that have not happened to you.” Fascinating things like those that have informed her most recent play, a piece of theatre accompanied by songs based around stories of her grandfather’s experiences during the war.
Narvik began, as many plays do, with an idea. “I was fascinated by the occupation of Norway. Arctic ports where these ordinary fellas were marooned in the ice and snow. I wanted to explore what that sort of extremity does to people.” Narvik itself is a port city in the far north of Norway, close to the Swedish border. Its strategic value made it a battleground in the Second World War, with the British navy eventually defeating the German army after a military blockade and several battles. What is immediately interesting about this play is that, even though it is a play exploring life in a different country and time, it is still very much a Liverpool play. “The central character is from Liverpool,” says Nunnery. “I like the challenge of writing unusual Liverpool stories. You can write Liverpool stories that don’t happen in people’s living rooms… as much as I do like stories set in Liverpool living rooms.” Telling big stories but keeping a level of local intimacy is something that comes naturally to Lizzie, and it is a theme that has been constantly explored and developed throughout her illustrious canon of work.
The idea of having songs performed live in the production is also something that came naturally to the Liverpool writer. Working with Box Of Tricks Theatre Company and composer/musician Martin Hesler, she explored a new way of creating engaging and exciting theatre. The Manchester-based Box Of Tricks approached Lizzie a few years ago and expressed an interest in her telling a story with live music, and from then it has been a process of drafting scripts and writing music. Her decision to work with Martin Hesler, a man who plays regularly in her own live band and has co-written songs with her, was a no-brainer. However, despite her passion for both music and theatre, it wasn’t always easy for Lizzie to combine the two into one neat production. “Narvik really got me thinking how to use music on stage. I didn’t really like musicals, the tone or the style. I spent a long time trying to work out how to use music in a play in a way that felt more heartfelt and interesting.” Narvik is not a musical; it is, as it says on the proverbial tin, a play with songs. As we dig deeper, Lizzie continues to explain how she sees the difference between the two. “In a musical, the songs have to carry the story forward. In a play with songs, the music can have a subtle relationship with the narrative throughout.” It is apparent that Narvik’s relationship with music is an esoteric one, providing ambience and a backdrop to the show rather than a device to move the plot forward.
Speaking to Nunnery about the opportunity to perform live music and theatre together makes you realise just how much love she has for what she wants to do. Whether it be through studio albums or scripts, Nunnery is a storyteller with craft, and big ideas that she wants to share with anyone and everyone. She is a hard worker, with no intention of resting on her laurels after this production of Narvik ends. She is already adapting a novel for the stage, recording a new album and, wait for it, writing a musical.
From studio albums to award-winning plays such as Intemperance, Nunnery has firmly established herself as a memorable Liverpool writer of memorable Liverpool plays. She is an artist who is constantly listening to new music and watching new theatre. Speaking broadly, she lists current and past influences, describing her enjoyment of the wonderful Sufjan Stevens and the Liverpool-born Kathryn Williams along with theatre-makers such as Dennis Kelly and Enda Walsh – who, if you haven’t read or listened to before, then you should check out.
With (hopefully) a Paxman-esque swagger, I conclude the interview by asking Nunnery why exactly people should come and see her most recent play. Her eloquent reply comes after a brief moment of thought: “I hope people feel like it does something unexpected. I hope it hits people in the head and the heart. I hope it explores big ideas of who were are and how war disrupts lives. It is a friendship between two lads in the navy.” And, perhaps most importantly, “I hope it delivers that big portion of heart.”