Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Blood Brothers

Grove Theatre, Dunstable

23 May 2011

Blood, sweat and many tears

It happens every single time. I have actually lost count of the number of times that I have seen Blood Brothers. I know exactly what is going to happen and many of the lines but I still flipping cry my eyes out.

I am not normally one for multiple visits to shows unless it is truely special or has a particularly impressive cast but I make an exception for Willy Russell's wonderful piece of drama. For I'd rather call it that than a musical. It is a very powerful and emotional play, it just so happens that most of the lines are sung.

So - why is it so special?

Well, although the opening scene hints that it’s not exactly going to be a happy ending, to start with the simple, witty lyrics and lighthearted scenes imply that it is a feel good musical. It draws you into the world of the families it portrays, lulling you into a false sense of security, until it twists in the second half and turns into tragedy. But by then it’s too late - you’re completely sucked in. It really is an emotional rollercoaster!

OK, the plot may sound a bit corny. Set in Liverpool. Twins separated at birth and brought up in different environments, one rich and one poor. They grow up different – but also the same. They meet by chance and, guess what, become firm friends!

But the mothers try to keep them apart because, in fear that she will lose her son, the adoptive mother has told the real one that if the boys ever find out, they will die. It could therefore easily dissolve into cliché and sentimentality but it doesn’t. It’s heartbreaking.

It doesn’t sound very cheery does it? But it is, it’s also very funny!

In Willy Russell’s own inimitable style, the Scouse wit is beautifully timed and some of the most enjoyable scenes are where the adult actors play seven-year-olds in all their innocence. But ultimately it is the humour of the piece that makes the finale all the more shattering.

The character that embodies this change is Mickey, and in this production, as it has been many times before, he is played by Sean Jones who puts in a performance that can only be described as blimming marvellous!

I was so pleased to find that Blood Brothers was coming to Dunstable but I was ecstatic to find that Jones had returned to the cast, for in my opinion he is the best Mickey ever!

I first interviewed him about it in 2004 after seeing his performance and he had already been in the show a while. Since then he has appeared on tour and in the West End on and off for years - to me he IS Mickey!

His transformation from a lovable and witty scally to a man totally broken by his circumstances is nothing short of brilliant! His delivery and timing is flawless, his breakdown heartrending, and it is mostly down to him that I have to scurry through the foyer at the end to the safety of the
darkness of the car park at the end of every show I've seen him in!

In this production Mrs Johnstone is played by Nikki Evans, the 2007 X Factor finalist. As the mother who has to separate her twins so that her family can survive, she put her all into the role and it is clear that in musical theatre she has found a better niche than pop superstardom. And as Leon Jackson won that series, I definitely think she got the better deal - pop superstardom didn't await the winner anyway!

I thought at the start, that showing the end first could spoil things but I was wrong. It just heightens the tension, because throughout the ‘we’re poor but we’re happy’ atmosphere, there is also a foreboding feeling of inevitability, that they are tumbling ever faster towards disaster.

Like the secret that hangs over the families, the Narrator (Craig price) lurking in nearly every scene, not in the forefront, but nevertheless there, also gives you the feeling that the past just won’t go away.

There are other little clues to the final conclusion throughout the show, as the imaginary guns turn to toy guns and eventually real and deadly ones.

On the face of it, one may be tempted to think that it is all about the class divide. It is a bit, but I think it’s more than that. As the two mothers try desperately to keep the twins apart for the rest of their lives, the more they seemed forced together.

It is a good example of self-fulfilling prophecy, showing that if you believe in superstitions enough they will come true, especially, if it’s you that’s made them up in the first place. It’s a good study in how much control we actually have over our own lives.

What playwright Willy Russell has always done so well is combine being critically acclaimed with being populist. This is because he not only puts together well-crafted plays with layers of meaning, he also writes about real people with all their humour and their tragedy.

We can empathise with them because we understand them. In Blood Brothers they may have a firm Liverpudlian voice, with its dry wit and bare humanity, but the emotions that they experience can be recognised by anybody.

Another thing that I like about this as a musical is that you don’t get bits of speech that sound like a cue for a song. The dialogue and the music melt seemlessly into one another as if this was totally natural. This is probably a result of one man doing the whole thing, book, lyrics and music.

And most importantly, after a big "number" as such, the next piece of action starts immediately, there is no interuption for applause which serves to keep the rollercoaster on track with no respite.

The show has been running for over 20 years in the West End and on tour, it simply doesn't date. Even if it is set in the 60s/70s, the costumes are pretty generic, situations, such as umemployment, are still recognisable and the emotions are universal.

Think I'd better stop now - although I could wax lyrical for a few more hundred words given the chance!

Interview with Sean Jones in 2004: http://www.bbc.co.uk/threecounties/theatre/2004/02/blood_brothers_sean_jones.shtml

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