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Crowds flock to a fitting finale for city institution; Thousands turned out for the Everyman Theatre's grand finale this weekend. Arts editor Laura Davis captures some of the atmosphere.

Byline: Laura Davis

"BE BACK soon" announces the graffiti scrawled across the front of the Liverpool Everyman, now an empty building awaiting demolition.

It is all that physically remains of Saturday's grand finale - an event that started gently, with people sharing their memories of this adored theatre, and ended with a replica Everyman sign bursting into flames on its roof in front of a cheering crowd of thousands.

There was already a queue snaking along Hope Street by 2pm, when the doors opened for the final time - four figures dressed like ghoulish undertakers inviting visitors inside.

"It started off quite tentatively," said Liverpool actor Stephen Fletcher, towering above the wellwishers in platform boots and a 3ft-tall top hat, his black cloak garnished with a pair of wings.

"No-one knew quite what to expect, but that's part of the mystery of the day. One woman came up to me and said she'd met her husband here, and another used to come here to see shows when she was involved in building the cathedral."

Fletcher, who remembers visiting the Everyman as a boy and wishing he could one day become an actor, starred in the theatre's last newlywritten production, Robert Farquhar's Dead Heavy Fantastic, in March.

"Some people have been saying they're sorry the building is being knocked down, but when they've been backstage and seen what it's like there they've understood it's got to happen," he added.

There were gasps of surprise at the cramped conditions behind the scenes. The narrow dressing room where Pete Postlethwaite prepared to play King Lear in 2008 had been built from a section of the electricians' storage room. Another is crowded by a staircase leading back up to the stage added for the recent production of Macbeth.

A recorded soundtrack of people's recollections added a touching dimension to the experience, brought together by Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low. Some voices were recognisable - poet Brian Patten remembering Julie Walters wearing an elephant suit in his 1974 play, The Pig and The Junkie - but they were not named. Ordinary audience members and stage stars' memories were given equal importance in the democratic Everyman way. "My one complaint is that they've cleaned up the dressing rooms - they don't even smell as bad," joked BBC Radio Merseyside presenter Roger Philips, who was among the Everyman company under Jonathan Pryce in the early-1970s.

"It will be very sad to see the end of such a truly loved theatre, but it's going out in style, and I know the future Everyman will be just as great."

At the back of the stage was the "e" from the sign that will adorn the new building when it opens in 2013, and in front of it another "e" made from candles. Strings with luggage tags attached, on which visitors were invited to write their own memories and observations, hung down from the lighting rig.

The atmosphere felt spiritual as people sat in the faded orange seats for a few moments of quiet contemplation.

"What an extraordinary day," said Everyman artistic director Gemma Bodinetz. "I think people really loved that nobody was telling them how to feel."

It was also the final day of the Everyman Bistro, which had a 45-minute queue outside it for most of the day.

"Some people have travelled from so far away to be here. It's an incredible mix of tremendous musicians, all the old faces of my era, and then the beautiful young people as well and all those in between," said owner Paddy Byrne.

Brenda Hawkins, a retired doctor's receptionist, from Huyton, recalled the theatre's very first production - Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, in 1964.

"We were 15 at the time and all we can remember is the men in tights," she said. "I was quite shocked."

One of the original cast members, Stuart Richman, played a star role in Saturday's evening finale, sitting next to Everyman and Playhouse Youth Theatre member Whitney Suku in the bucket of a JCB covered in black balloons as it made its way up a cordoned off Hope Street in a funereal procession.

On a stage in front of the theatre, he read a passage about the theatre's past, before Whitney talked of its future. Then the famous red sign was dimmed to a cry of "ahhhh" from the crowd, which included Liverpool actor Ian Hart, and the replica sign burst into flames.

"It was epic," said 20-year-old Whitney, a drama student at Liverpool John Moores University. "Being part of it was such an honour. If it wasn't for the Everyman, I wouldn't be who I am today."

And there were surely many watching as the words "Be back soon" were sprayed on to the front of the building who felt exactly the same way.

CAPTION(S):

Code: gav020711everyman-3 Six-month-old Martha Tilley-Willis enjoys the tour Code: gav020711everyman- Everyman and Playhouse Youth Theatre member Whitney Suku and Stuart Richman, who Picture: ALEX WOLKOWICZ The Everyman Bistro was packed out for the last time Purchase: www.merseyshop.com/buyaphoto, 0845 300 3021 Pictures: GAVIN TRAFFORD/ gav020711everyman-13
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 4, 2011
Words:843
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