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Theatre Review: Miss Nobodies

Ruth Cockburn performs a fragmented ode to the lives of Lancashire’s working-class women

In Blackpool’s Grand Theatre studio space, the audience takes their seats. Before long, an energetic duo emerge from a curtain and we are suddenly transported, now making up the crowd of a fundraiser for the Old Tin Bath Shop. It is this seemingly mundane business that becomes the focal point of Miss Nobodies – a fascinating, time-defying look at working-class life in Lancashire.

Written by Blackpool-born writer Ruth Cockburn, one half of comedy duo Black Liver, the play promises a century-long journey through one shop, beginning on the cusp of WWI. Cockburn also stars in the show alongside Black Liver’s other half, Keith Carter – a Liverpudlian writer, actor and comedian. Miss Nobodies was originally inspired by the UK’s first working-class woman to publish a novel, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. When Cockburn read the Blackburn-born author’s remarkable work, Miss Nobody (1918), she loved how the author sought to tell the stories of other women in her position and felt the urge to do the same – though this time in the form of a play.

The show is ambitious without being ostentatious, accessible without lack of nuance or complexity. Driven forward by the pair alone and their many storytelling talents, each era is represented through fragmented tales of women from a time gone by. Black Liver use a well-tuned combination of poetry, song and spoken word to reflect the diversity of working-class lives from the past century. A lyrical monologue from the 1960s depicts the reality of young friendship, wrought by class boundaries. A Jackanory-esque story time reveals the influence of gender norms, racism and misogyny in the 1970s. A poetic segment notes the transformation of one wife to business mogul as she builds an empire to be proud of. Each builds a picture of struggle and strife, but also of joy and palpable Northern spirit.

In the show’s programme, Cockburn describes what inspired the play:

“It all started in Great Harwood in 2019, a post-industrial town 30-odd miles away from Manchester and 40 from Blackpool). I visited and spoke to women all over the town. Every scene in the show is inspired by stories the women told me: fragments of a story gleaned in the launderette, a bit of gossip laughed about at the school gates, a tearful memory over a cuppa at the café or a hilarious tale over the counter at the charity shop.”

Despite the often serious subject matter, it would be impossible to review Miss Nobodies without highlighting its sheer comedy value. The duo have an essence of humour about them from the very moment the show begins and provoke a generous helping of laughter from the audience. Aside from an interactive piece and some incredible tongue-in-cheek dialogue, the most memorable (yet surprising) segment comes from a conversation between two pigeons. Cockburn and Carter don an identical pair of rubber masks, transforming them into two bobbing birds – a magnificent, had-to-be-there moment if there ever was one.

Once each performance for The Old Tin Bath Shop’s supposed fundraiser is complete, the show is closed out with an evocative piece of poetry by the writer’s muse: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. The ending acts as a suitable reminder of the play’s purpose – to celebrate the lives of the many Miss Nobodies who make up Lancashire’s working class, both past and present.

Buy the accompanying book Miss Nobodies here. Black Liver performs Support Your Local Library: A Gothic/Pub Rock Opera at Blackpool Central Library on 21st April. Book tickets here.

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