FringeReview UK 2016
This revival of Willy Russell’s 1983 perennial Blood Brothers, is co-directed by Bill Kenwright (with Ben Tomson) who also produces. It’s designed as before by Andy Walmsley. Phil Costelow’s music direction and Dan Sampson’s sound amplifies this to a crump of decibels. Darran Curtis’ lighting is pitched at a hallucinatory naturalism. Lyn Paul returns too as Mrs Johnstone taking the lead, along with Mark Hutchinson as Eddie, Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons returning to familiar parts, alongside those in role for the first time.
Bill Kenwright co-directs – with Ben Tomson – as well as produces this revival of Willy Russell’s 1983 perennial Blood Brothers, designed as before by Andy Walmsley; a simple set with tenements in either side, one with salubrious extensions and a backdrop shifting from Merseyside lights to countryside. Phil Costelow’s music direction and the pit-band sound, is phenomenal in this space: punchy, percussive and creating that strange off-chord of fateful motifs. Dan Sampson’s sound amplifies this to a crump of decibels I’ve not experienced here, though always musically. Darran Curtis’ lighting is necessary at some climactic moments, and everything’s pitched at a hallucinatory naturalism. Lyn Paul returns too as Mrs Johnstone taking the lead, along with several other cast members (Mark Hutchinson as Eddie, Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons) returning to familiar parts, alongside those in role for the first time.
In a show of such sterling provenance, the reappearance of Paul and experienced cast members anchors this production in its history. Returning here seven years on what strikes one about Paul is the even greater sense of foreboding and stoic power, more than very raw emotion. What’s also fascinating is how a more recent part taken by say Dean Chisnall’s ominous Narrator, nudges the drama a little further on than one remembers.
The epilogue of the story’s played out at the beginning and then the fable of the Johnstone twins unfolds at such a pace as to partly banish, partly reinforce our sense of that massive reveal.
It’s sometime in the early 1950s, and Mrs Johnstone – we never learn her first name – is courted (‘Dancing’) married and has seven children by a man who abandons her before her eighth and as it happens ninth child arrives. She can’t feed twins and the woman she cleans for, Mrs Lyons (Sarah Jane Buckley) offers her a way out: give one child to her, but makes Mrs Johnstone swear she’ll never reveal the truth – so Mr Lyons away for nine months will think it’s theirs.
So twins are sundered, and when Mrs Lyons meanly cuts out Mrs Johnstone from any contact, the separation and fateful reunion of the twins, their confluence and growing apart, plays out against the backdrop of their very different class aspirations, and the very same girl, Linda (Alison Crawford, making an astonishing little-voice transition from child to woman).
This ‘folk opera’ is several things: Brechtian theatre by way of Stratford East and Joan Littlewood, with Russell’s memorable lyrics married to equally catchy insistent melodies, as the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ refrain which only occasionally seems strained as a catch-all but for the most part ingeniously twisted to ends you’d never expect, including medication. There are duets like ‘My Child’ where the real and faux mothers sing their different feelings, and the bittersweet realism of ‘Easy Terms’ taking on several meanings as Paul yet again commands a lyrical but elegiac centre stage with heft and delicacy – as the bailiffs repossess every stitch of Higher Purchase furniture.
Then there’s the mythic supernatural. A sometimes sinister Narrator, Chisnall’s authentically smoky localism dogs the shadows of all protagonists, with both regret (if the fateful trio could just stay eighteen) and a whiff of brimstone as he keeps intoning the devil and singing the catching lucklessness of ‘Shoes Upon the Table’ to minor chord disruptions. His voice cuts through its smokiness, edging to sinister and almost Mephistopholean settling to accounts as he reminds each character – somewhere in their unconscious – there’s an account to pay after swearing oaths and curses. This dimension transcends the class he accents at the end, but at the same time repositions it.
Whereas Paul anchors with her magnificence and throbbing tough-love compassion, the trio of younger actors growing up is revelatory in its physical re-anactment of childhood, where the child who stayed, Mickey is placed through the most vibrant and harrowing of changes. Josh Capper’s winning, hapless madcap growing up and shrivelling down is superbly done with physical precision, from ebullience to shrunken drug-dependant hollowness, slowed down, ashen with premature age.
The baleful influence of his gun-happy workshy elder brother Sammy (Adam Search’s rangy menace wholly convinces, he sweats anger) pushes Capper’s Mickey further away from a chance of squaring with life. But more decisive is what life, employment and no real opportunity, do to him. It corrodes too his relationship with his ‘blood brother’ Eddie, and his new wife Linda.
Mark Hutchinson’s Eddie can still seem extraordinarily childlike and transforms to the well-to-do councillor in a couple of hours. Like Capper and Crawford, his growing is the great acting up of the night. The songs he shares with Capper, ‘Long Sunday Afternoon’ and later ‘That Guy’ are winningly matched. Crawford too shares in this growing and her vocal transformation is matched by an ardent high soprano that nails her strength and vulnerability, worn down even beyond her own quiet heroism.
Sarah Jane Buckley’s Mrs Lyons as the thankless near-villain duets with Paul with a rich harmony between them; her neurotic terrified meanness is explained at least. Mrs Lyons’ very identity is bound by a secret. Buckley’s crumpled paranoia and mad slashes of anger seamlessly erupt from her.
All the parts are as well-etched and cameo’d as you’d expect; Churchill’s unctuousness suggests a platonic pipe-clamping moment; seasoned, he’s also entrusted with being assistant director on the tour. Laura Harrison whether pregnant older sister or the Mrs Jones ordered to fire everyone and fired herself, or Graham Martin’s authority roles as teacher and policeman all mark their territory.
The show ran for nearly three hours. It never for a moment seemed it, gripping the audience so tightly that when the great peroration ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ reprises the whole audience rose spontaneously to its feet – something I’ve not seen in this theatre. This is the production to see, whilst Paul bestrides it. The blend of definitive and new cast members in a recent classic has overwhelming impact: as story, as lyric fable, as terrible moral for these distracted times.