Julie McNamara's latest award-winning production at the Baby Grand tackles more than just disability, as Joe Nawaz discovers

On the deck of an old ship moored at Liverpool’s Docks, pregnant teenager Shelley is on the run from a gang after a drugs drop goes horribly wrong.

Perhaps not an auspicious setting for a play that has been described by fellow scribblers as the ‘urban Scrooge’. Both this setting and the intimation that it might be some kind of redemptive ghost story are somewhat misleading though.

What is true about Crossings, written by and starring Julie McNamara, is that it recently won a prestigious South Bank Show Award for diversity – and this should give you a clearer inkling of what this slight but pleasingly disconcerting play is about.

A play with a strident feminist agenda and socio-historical dialectic is certainly a bold bit of programming for the Baby Grand, and though McNamara’s latest work has been wowing a broad range of what marketers would call non-conventional demographics across the UK, it’s not exactly Brian Friel.

Central to this all-female three-hander performance, set exclusively on the slave ship Zong, is a fourth presence – a signer for the deaf. Each scene has a signed prologue, a marvellous idea we should really see more of in theatre. As the predominantly female audience includes both deaf and physically disabled people it’s clear that Crossings is getting its message across and, thanks to the great work of organisations like the Arts and Disability Forum, genuinely making itself known to people who wouldn’t necessarily feel at home in the austere and often unwelcoming environs of a theatre auditorium.

At any rate, McNamara has always tried to find ways in her work to break down the elitism of theatre and has been unafraid to make her theatre both political and polemical. And there’s a kind of old-fashioned directness with Crossings that seems to have been gradually leached out of mainstream theatre.

It has a stance and isn’t afraid to hold its ground – tackling in its own way issues of class, gender, race and history. Having said that, this work isn’t entirely successful, but it does possess a refreshing gusto that makes one pine for the long gone heyday of small town centre agit-prop.

The supernatural aspect of the story centres on young Shelley, a hard-bitten scouse kid turning her life around courtesy of two ghostly presences – an escaped African slave and a 100 year old salty Irish sea dog who turns out not to be all he seems.

The play draws links between slavery, the harsh and often exploitative experience of economic emigrants to former British colonies and the plight of young dispossessed women in our current society – Crossings recognises a kind of slavery in all these conditions and makes it clear that just as the masters of the 18th century slave ships were men, so it is true that, still today, if allowed, men will keep women in bondage.

In Shelley’s case, amongst her ‘posse’ she is callously passed around for sexual fun from one guy to another. The various baubles she is given by men in her life – the mobile phones and jewellery – are just 'trinkets' used to buy her abeyance. The point is none too subtle and the script constantly describes men as ‘dogs’, ‘jackals’, ‘wolves’ and various other malign, canine-related epithets.

It's particularly disquieting when it becomes clear that the whole drive of the plot it seems is to get Shelley to emancipate herself from the men around her, make a new life for her and her baby son and bring him up to be, well, a man. Writing as a bloke with a real regard for feminist thought, I can see that that point is perhaps facetious. But it highlights my own unexpected discomfort at the phallo-phobic proselytizing that made up an important strand of the play’s theme.

African Nzingah and Irish Hegarty (lest there be any confusion as to who was who) each relay to a spiky but increasingly wavering Shelley their own particular tales of woe in a bid to get her to turn her life around. Each one is grimmer than the one before – each one representing an aspect of the victimisation of women who are so far beneath the strata of ‘society’ as to be invisible.

Crossings makes the perfectly valid point that when a group of people experience oppression or are treated poorly, it is the women who bear a crushing double burden; both from the system that’s trampling them and from their own men. It’s a tried and tested classical feminist analysis and while absolutely true, still made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, being as I am one of the ‘dogs’ in question (only by accident of gender I assure you).

The performance of Sophie Benjamin as Shelley is immaculate. She’s variously funny, irreverent, chippy, brazen and frightened. In short, that most terrifying of threats to good honest decent Daily Mail society – a real-life teen from the estate. Benjamin conveys the underlying complexities of Shelley’s superficially hard exterior brilliantly. Unfortunately, she’s let down by Julie McNamara as Hegarty and Naomi Cortes as Nzingah.

For some reason every time they spoke, it sounded like they were reading from an auto-cue. Cortes’ stereotypical sassy African just didn’t seem like an authentic voice. When she shouted something about the conditions of life in her slave ship, what should have been heart-breaking had all the righteous ire of a gripe from a moaning minnie.

McNamara meanwhile, who is apparently originally from Belfast, was in possession of an Antrim accent so phoney it had its own ring tone. That’s to perhaps undersell her performance though – she makes a game stab at the rakish nautical type with a secret identity but unfortunately hers and Cortes’ performances never quite convince.

The set though is solidly woody and angular – giving it a convincingly ship-like feel while the vast billowing sails in the background double as screens for a series of constantly changing images – unsettling, evocative and abstracted collages of people, places and signs which help to metaphorically and literally push the story on. It’s a good imaginative use of set which conveys the illusion of depth and imagined recesses on an ostensibly stubby little stage.

In summation, the intentions of Crossings are impeccable and the issues it addresses and the parallels it draws from history’s pages are absolutely spot-on. As a small theatrical piece it sets laudable first principles that there’s more to making work inclusive than ticking a box on an arts council form.

And yet, for me, it was just that little too preachy without the balm of an ironic narrative to tease out any real pathos. The lines too, were just occasionally a little too stilted, spoken more than once like declarations rather than dialogue.

In spite of that, it’s still a ballsy and provocative play with something to say that will, just maybe, do more than sermonise to the converted. Melvyn Bragg doesn’t go around handing out awards to just everyone you know…

Joe Nawaz