Our Benny, the musical takes a bow in Liverpool

PUBLISHED: 18:34 24 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:22 20 February 2013

Eastham Ferry

Eastham Ferry

A musical linking an affluent Lancashire town with a pair of impoverished Victorian street urchins is set to open soon<br/>Neil Newton reports

TUCKED away from view on fertile land at Scarisbrick on the outskirts of Southport, a theatrical triumph is taking root.

Writer Anne Dalton and business partner at ADB Productions Bill Dobson are currently working night and day to put the finishing touches to what is sure to be one of the highlights of Liverpool's cultural calendar.

This idyllic rural location, surrounded by fields and farmland, provides the unusual birthplace for one of Lancashire's best loved musical tales. On arrival at the pretty cottage building I sense a buzz in the air - Benny is back!

Revamped and re-orchestrated, but true to Silas K.Hocking's original novel called Her Benny, the emotive tale has been carefully transformed into a musical called Our Benny. It tells of a young boy's struggle to survive the harsh, Victorian streets of Liverpool.

Benny Bates and his waiflike sister Nell escape the clutches of a drunkard for a father and a brutish stepmother to find happiness with a kindly night watchman Joe Wragg and his wife Sally.

But it doesn't last when Nell falls ill and Benny is accused of a crime he didn't commit. It's not the first time that this home grown musical has played to north west audiences. Under its original guise of Her Benny it sold out the Liverpool Empire on successive occasions in the 90s and again at the millennium.

So how did the former Merchant Taylor's teacher turn her hand to not only writing professionally, but directing and composing? Anne says: 'The whole Benny journey began for me in the late 80s. I was teaching and I'd just taken one of my musicals to the Edinburgh fringe. On my return the local newspaper ran an article on me and I received a surprise letter which was to change my life.

'It came from an elderly lady in Ormskirk called Mary Jackson, who had seen the interview. Mrs Jackson's favourite book had been Her Benny and she asked if I'd consider writing a musical version.

'I promptly went into town and bought a copy. Well I just couldn't put it down! In the days and weeks that followed I wrote the first version of what would ultimately form the basis of the musical.'

It was unveiled at Hartwood Hall Hotel in Chorley just before Christmas 1990 in front of a ladies' business group. It was so successful, the production toured Lancashire and Merseyside. The Benny bug was spreading.

In 1993 Anne and Husband Mike took the bold decision to hire out the Liverpool Empire Theatre to stage a professional production.

'We were absolutely terrified. To book a venue with over 2,000 seats, and to shoulder the financial responsibilities was quite something.' But the audiences came in their thousands. Benny has come a long way since its humble beginnings, so what now for the production?

Anne says: 'As Liverpool is Capital of Culture, Bill and I decided that it was incredibly important for us to cast Benny using as many local actors as possible. Since February we've been holding open auditions across the region to find child stars, who'll play opposite the professionals'

Actor and singer Bernie Nolan will star as Sally Wragg and Liverpool born Coronation Street and Brookside actor Sam Kane takes up the role of Joe Wragg. Hocking wrote Her Benny while working as a Methodist preacher in Southport. It was based entirely on the realities of life experienced in Victorian Liverpool. But it's not all deadly serious.
It is thought-provoking but it is also described as a feelgood, family musical set a million miles away from today's more prosperous city that Liverpool.

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