Theatre review: The Match Box, Liverpool Playhouse

THERE are some performances that you feel honoured to have witnessed, usually given by those long famous for their uncanny ability to mould themselves as others.

This week’s world premiere of The Match Box was one of those, although the woman at its centre is still near the beginning of her career.

Liverpool actor Leanne Best is no stranger to the Everyman and Playhouse main stages having given impressive performances in Unprotected (2006), The Hypochondriac (2009), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (2011) and, most recently, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Yet in the Williamson Square theatre’s more intimate Studio space, and under Lia Williams’s direction, she outshone even her previous work.

In Irish writer Frank McGuinness’s new singlehander, she is Sal, a mother coping with loss, love, hate, acts of forgiveness and acts of revenge, and weeping real tears.

She sits in self-imposed exile in a shabby single room on Valentia Island, off the coast of County Kerry, alone with her memories and her grief, finding comfort only in the whiff of sulphur as she lights match after match.

Her emotions fluctuate quickly, like a child’s – her character, which is charming as she recalls funny conversations with her lost daughter, shifts to feral ferocity when she relates the circumstances of her loss.

McGuinness’s script is a modern day Greek tragedy in which Sal is her own chorus – her own voice of prophecy and doom – but it is deeply rooted in contemporary issues as well as eternal themes.

Although the location is unspecified, Best performs in her natural Liverpudlian accent – switching to Irish and Lancashire tones as she reports the words of people in her life – and The Match Box fits very well in this city with its Irish population, gangland problems and insular communities.

Laid out with L-shaped seating so the audience surrounds two sides of the stage, the Playhouse Studio has something of the atmosphere of the old Everyman, intense and surprising.

The set is just on the gentle side of rundown with lighting that grows more foreboding as the story unfolds – are those singe marks on the walls or just filth?

An extraordinary performance of a remarkable new work. Both The Match Box and Best will undoubtedly go on to even greater glory, but it all started here on the Liverpool stage this week.