Edge Hill railway station in Liverpool is full of life these days. More, probably, than the day George Stephenson launched his train the Rocket from here to mark the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway in 1836. This is largely down to the presence in the oldest passenger railway station in the world of Metal, an initiative to provide a creative lab for developing artists that has moved into Edge Hill’s formerly disused engine room, boiler house and accumulator tower. What this amounts to is studio space to develop and rehearse in as well as a screening and performance area.
Having launched in Liverpool in 2009 with the euphemistically named Get Off At Edge Hill group exhibition, Metal’s first artist in residence is Glasgow born writer and harpist Rebecca Joy Sharp. This week, Sharp will premiere The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumiere, a promenade performance piece that incorporates a live musical score and design by artist Elizabeth Willow into Sharp’s fantastical poetic text about a pair of Victorian lovers who live by night among the station’s shadows and steam.
“The name of the piece came first,” explains Sharp on a sunny Sunday in Edge Hill. “I began to write the poems before the idea for the performance came. Then I worked on a site-specific community play in Leeds, which got me thinking, and later I met Elizabeth, so it all happened quite organically.”
Regulars at The Arches in Glasgow may recognise Sharp’s name from two works that appeared at what was then the Arches Theatre Festival. Both Last Child in 2001 and Danger: Hollow Sidewalk in 2006 revealed an audacious new playwriting talent who grew up watching multi-media artists at the CCA and Tramway.
“I spent most of my early days wanting to be Laurie Anderson,” Sharp admits of her influences.
Since her last sighting, Sharp has spent time in Belfast and New York, before moving to Liverpool to study screen-writing. It was, Sharp says, “an expensive way of finding out what I didn’t want to do. There’s something about naturalistic dialogue I don’t like. Why not just watch TV if you want that?”
Sharp now combines her harp-playing with poetic narratives she’s performed supporting such Liverpool luminaries as Clinic and The Wild Swans. Sharp’s debut EP, The Mystery Workshop, released in 2009, revealed a set of fragile and ornately-crafted compositions that married Sharp’s home-spun whimsy to a musical backdrop reminiscent of Joanna Newsom. The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumiere takes this approach even further.
“More and more,” Sharp says, “I’ve got an overall vision of what I want onstage, and have to stop pretending I’m a writer who has nothing to do with that side of things, especially where my writing is concerned in terms of its relationship with music. Before I left Glasgow I’d more or less stopped playing music, but it took me moving away to find a different way of working.”
Much of Sharp’s renewed focus comes directly from her experience of Metal, the brainchild of Jude Kelly, the Liverpool born former artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse and currently in charge of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Edge Hill is the second Metal centre following the establishment of one in Southend on Sea. Such a holistic space has clearly allowed Sharp to find her voice in her own time. The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumiere may only be her third stage work in a decade, but the wait for a follow-up isn’t likely to be quite so long.
“I’ve always been reluctant to get on any kind of treadmill,” Sharp admits. “Probably to my own detriment. But after this I want to keep the momentum going.”
Plans are already afoot for a new piece looking at folk ballads. Sharp would also like to see Danger: Hollow Sidewalk revived, and expresses a desire to bring The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumiere to Glasgow. As another railway building steeped in history, The Arches would be ideal.
“It would be as if the two characters were moving from place to place,” Sharp muses, her imagination already running from station to station.
The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumiere, Metal at Edge Hill Station, Liverpool, May 11-15.
The Herald, May 11th 2010