Lizzie Nunnery says she hears a play she’s writing before she sees it. Even as a playwright, this accomplished singer-songwriter has a heightened musical sense. Nothing wrong with that, except in this revival of Intemperance, her full-length debut first seen in an acclaimed production at the Liverpool Everyman in 2007, the aural comes at the expense of the theatrical. Zoë Waterman’s production could transfer seamlessly to radio without significant changes – although whether it would be any more compelling is a moot point.
Set in the slums of industrial Liverpool in the 1800s and realised in the sepia tones of Jess Curtis’s bare-bones set, it is about a family of Irish immigrants dreaming of escape. Each deals with hardship in their own way. The solution of John O’Mahony’s bed-wridden granddad is to tell escapist anecdotes from a life at sea. Krissi Bohn’s Millie, meanwhile, invests her hopes in her second husband’s job prospects. Played by Øystein Kanestrøm, he, in turn, fabricates a fantasy double life to please his Norwegian father. Millie’s grownup children (Niamh Finlay and Thomas Grant) have more pragmatic escape routes; one sleeping her way into money, the other drinking himself into a stupor.
Nunnery attributes the illness, addiction and conflict not to indolence, as many Victorians would have it, but poverty. You don’t have to disagree with the analysis to find the whole thing depressing. This is partly because the characters have so little agency. Being at the bottom of the heap, they are powerless to do anything more than dream, and what little action they do take invariably ends badly. Politically, the play offers only despair.
That is compounded by the absence of the kind of gallows humour that makes such situations half-way tolerable – for the audience as much as the characters. When misery is piled upon misery, you look for resistance, some spark of rebellion, but aside from their outbursts of violence, this family can only bemoan their lot. Like something by Seán O’Casey or Ena Lamont Stewart, both in its one-room vision of squalor and its off-stage drama and old-fashioned withholding of information, it is a dispiriting evening.
• At the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until 20 April.