Venue of the Month: Unity Theatre, Liverpool

Liverpool's Unity Theatre may look humble, but with its long and noble history of using theatre to engender social change, it’s anything but. We look ahead to its autumn season

Feature by Jacky Hall | 01 Aug 2013

A sliver of Georgian architecture between the city centre and Toxteth, Liverpool's Canning area has at its heart Hope Street, a promenade linking the city's two cathedrals. It's the kind of street where cafés offer a selection of loose leaf teas, and the local hotel lobby has a grand piano. Just off Hope Street is Hope Place, a residential row of grand townhouses boasting original sash windows, front doors maintained with licks of Farrow & Ball, and smartly trimmed box hedges. It's also home to one of Merseyside's most innovative performing arts venues: the small yet perfectly formed Unity Theatre.

Founded in the 1930s as the Merseyside Left Theatre by Gerry Dawson and Edgar Criddle, the original company was born out of the Workers' Theatre Movement. In an era before mass consumption of television or newspapers, the Movement aimed to engage and politicise working class Brits using theatre, exploring issues such as unemployment or the rise of fascism in vibrant, immediate plays. Liverpool's Unity Theatre was one of around 250 branches developed from the original Unity in Kings Cross, London – and Hope Place has been its base since 1980, when the company moved into a former synagogue. The building was refurbished in 1998, and today the theatre's sculptural steel-and-glass exterior contrasts with the surrounding brick townhouses, marking out the building as progressive and forward-thinking – qualities also on display in its autumn 2013 season, which continues the venue's long-standing tradition of producing radical shows and providing a platform for emerging artists through its youth theatre and community work.

After the Write Now Festival from 18-21 Sep ( – a series of six new one-act plays plus script-in-hand readings of works from Liverpudlian writers – the theatre presents a staging of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1-12 Oct). A complex and fantastical satire of Soviet Russia, its characters include a pistol-toting black cat called Behemoth and the devil himself. Max Rubin's stage version sees him tackle an ambitious project already attempted by theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, who scrapped an operatic version in 2007. (He told The Stage, “it's undo-able. It's just too difficult for an audience to contemplate.”) Unity's artistic director Graeme Phillips promises it will be a “phantasmagorical production... enhanced by the use of extraordinary computer imagery and animation to bring this epic tale to technicolour life.” Other dramatic works will be Theatre Ad Infinitum's award-winning Translunar Paradise (25 Oct), and Beauty and the Beast (22-23 Nov), an adult fairytale exploring our concepts of beauty, starring former Miss Exotic World, Julie Atlas Muz.

In November, Homotopia returns to celebrate its tenth year. For 2013, the LGBT festival has an impressive programme encompassing theatre, visual art, dance and comedy. Events take place across Liverpool, but as Homotopia's headquarters are at the Unity, the theatre remains the festival's hub. Highlights include Chelsea Hotel (1-2 Nov,, a dance piece from Cardiff-based company Earthfall exploring those decadent and bohemian New York City digs. Postmodern performance artist Dickie Beau hosts Lost in Trans (6-7 Nov), incorporating found sounds, drag and lip-synching in a work inspired by Ovid's epic Latin poem, Metamorphoses. Avant-garde cabaret legend David Hoyle appears on 9 Nov joined by Julie Holestar and poet Gerry Potter, plus Nigerian singer Le Gateau Chocolat performs in autobiographical work Black (14-15 Nov).

As the Unity approaches its 35th year on Hope Place, the theatre's commitment to producing vital and engaging works is as strong as ever. Phillips asserts: “I think that there is a resurgence of interest in political theatre and satire. It can be seen in the range of exciting new plays being staged and even influences the way the classics are interpreted and made relevant to modern audiences.”