Culture Writer Charley Davies reviews Blood Brothers at Theatre Royal Plymouth, praising the acting and its portrayal of class differences
Content Warning: This review contains some mild spoilers for Blood Brothers.
Though it took me eight months into 2021 to watch a piece of live theatre, the first performance was truly worth the wait. Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, a play ruminated on continually by members of the University of Birmingham Drama department, had been lifted to the stage by director Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson, landing at Theatre Royal Plymouth during its national tour. Bar a strong reputation, there were no prior expectations I had of the show, but I left the auditorium in tears, and this is a testament to a production that charts its tragic story so beautifully, tentatively, yet often comically.
Blood Brothers follows the diverging and converging lives of twin boys Mickey (Alex Patmore) and Edward (Joel Benedict), who – unbeknown to the boys – were separated at birth because their biological mother Mrs Johnstone (Lyn Paul) couldn’t afford to look after two new babies in addition to her other seven children. From when Edward is taken from pram and in by Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), who is unable to conceive a child, the story becomes a tragedy of social class disparities, and the need to conceal the god-sworn secret between the mothers; that the boys, who still form a strong fraternity of friendship, are indeed fraternal twin-brothers. Literal ‘blood brothers’.
What stood out as a particularly interesting feature was how the same actors charted the lives of their respective characters from age seven near the start to early twenties by the end of the production, in a way similar to the ensemble cast within Emma Rice’s Wise Children (Bristol Old Vic Theatre). The actors’ characterisations were transitional signposts to the action. Hannah Barr’s performance as Brenda – Mickey’s classmate and later girlfriend – particularly emphasised this beyond the physical differences in her costume and hair differences. Her infinitely bouncy, spritely gait shifted to restricted, tottering about in high heels and mini skirts, before striding about in flats and practical tench coats by the show’s close. Her whole demeanour matured and profoundly reflected the transience of the characters’ youth.
The actor who certainly defied perceptions of ageing the most was Lyn Paul. Paul has been portraying Mrs Johnstone since 1997; and with 2021 marking her final tour of Blood Brothers, it truly was a privilege to watch this fearless 72-year-old carry the auditorium with her heartfelt performance. The only faults within Paul’s performance came from the show’s writing. The way in which Mrs Johnstone’s phrases, such as “dancing”, changed meaning as they were reprised at different points in the action was clever and ironic. However, the tragic parallels she shared with the frequently referred-to “Marilyn Monroe” could have struck a less-informed audience better if Marilyn’s tragic life had been contextualised before them. This certainly seems like one of the ways in which a 1981 piece could have been adapted more for its contemporary audience, exactly forty years later.
The tragedy of Blood Brothers is not just of two brothers who die upon discovering that they are literal ‘blood brothers’; the show is a tragedy of a world where the richest survive. The joy of this Blood Brothers production, however, is that class differences are explored as both light and macabre. Indeed, watching Mickey obliviously roll around on stage and repeat colloquial phrases in his northern dialect created a likeable immediacy to his character within his expositional monologue, reminding us of the joyful futility of childhood play. Yet by the point of the character’s fate, the class differences were epitomised much more bleakly. Centre-stage, Mickey stands clutching a pistol, with Edward to his right, blending into the beige counsel office in a suit of similarly neutral tones. Poised in the stalls pointing pistols at Mickey were policemen, and this was a unique decision by Kenwright which made the tension within the auditorium palpable.
The Narrator (Robbie Scotcher) was the perfect bridge from these dark to light tonal shifts and between the characters and audience. Lit by a stark white light, he roamed the stage like a bad omen, commenting on the action and characters, but never speaking with them. In his final verse, he chants: ‘And do we blame superstition for what came to pass? / Or could it be what we, the English, have come to / know as class?’ By the end of the show, he becomes a direct communicant, a spokesperson for the tragedy of nature versus nurture.
Though the show’s action closes within the 1980s, this world is not far from our own as seen today. I am glad that the first piece of live theatre I watched this year was not solely executed well, but targeted such prevalent themes. Blood Brothers is a morality musical, a performance of tears, sweat and blood.
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