To Have and To Have Not
The sins of the mothers come home to roost in Willy Russell’s "Blood Brothers,” as twin brothers, Mickey and Eddie, separated at birth, find themselves cursed and damned by fate. Or should that be cursed and damned by the class system? If Russell’s 1983 award winning musical begins by telling you it’s all going to end badly, such is the power of "Blood Brothers" that you start hoping it might yet have a different ending. Even if you've already seen it. For like many of its characters, you too will suffer from a fatal flaw. That of falling wildly in love with "Blood Brothers,” laughing and loving at every childhood moment, knowing you are powerless to prevent it from breaking your heart.
What’s to love? You can start with Rebecca Storm’s beautifully realised Mrs Johnstone. An abandoned wife and mother of several children working as a domestic cleaner in Liverpool, trying hard to keep a roof over her head and a milk bottle on the doorstep. She once looked like Marilyn Monroe, a metaphor Russell plays with brilliantly throughout. Now she’s barely keeping body and soul together. Discovering herself pregnant with twins, she strikes a pact with Paula Tappenden’s painfully real Mrs Lyons, a wealthy woman from the opposite side of the tracks with everything except a child. But the devil is never far away when bargains are being struck, even well intentioned ones. An impressive Robbie Scotcher’s Mephistopheles styled narrator issues constant rhyming reminders, like a one man Greek chorus, that there are powerful forces at play and a price is going to have to be paid.
Always it’s the children who suffer most. Made all the more poignant given that twins Mickey and Eddie, in two spectacularly winning performances by Alexander Patmore and Joel Benedict, keep finding each other no matter how hard life tries tear them apart. Ignorant of their true connection, their journey through childhood, adolescence and adulthood charms a heart aching course towards the inevitable prophesied day. One when mothers will be left to carry the legacy of pain. Including mother-to-be and air gun marksman Linda; an adorable Danielle Corlass as the childhood sweetheart who was always the love of both brothers.
If "Blood Brothers" can appear dated in places, hankering back to a nostalgic innocence when Beano and Dandy kids played Cowboys and Indians and even the baddest boys daren’t use the f-word, it was a mind blowing revelation in 1983. A time when gritty TV dramas like Boys from the Black Stuff were beginning to address the plight of the unemployed. A time when theatre, let alone musical theatre, let alone musical theatre steeped in Greek tragedy, was considered too posh and having nothing to do with the working class. Till Russell decided otherwise. His first victory was to write a script rich in lived detail, especially the details of growing up. Making the first two-thirds utterly irresistible, covering the delightful early years at a steady canter. Yet the last third stumbles at times for trying to cover too much ground in a rush towards the finish. Risking both brothers disappearing behind too many political themes being suddenly shoe horned in. Joblessness, crime, prison, depression, all come charging out of nowhere, with Mickey becoming eclipsed by his issues and Eddie receding to near vanishing. But cross the line they finally do, and if the focus shifts from brothers to mothers, the end still packs one hell of an emotional wallop.
Musically, "Blood Brothers" shows Russell as a master of the form. A form in which songs serve story rather than the other way round. While "Blood Brothers" has its big musical moments, they arise from the action and speak to it, rather than stopping the action to wedge in some unconvincingly cheesy tune. If "Blood Brothers" hasn’t sparked any chart topping classics over the past thirty-seven years, songs like Light Romance, Marilyn Monroe and Tell Me It’s Not True will slip into your soul. And get soldered there by Storm’s electrifying vocals. Who, like the entire cast, turns in a wonderful performance.
Exquisitely directed by Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright, "Blood Brothers" is strung together like an expensively jewelled necklace; a detailed chain of individually linked diamonds that constantly sparkle. In which Andy Walmsley’s superlative design captures both the romanticism of Liverpool and its tenement poverty. For many, Willie Russell is justifiably one of the most important English playwrights of the 70s and 80s. From Educating Rita to Shirley Valentine, Russell’s working class heroes spoke to a new, working class confidence telling working class stories with passion and heart. So laugh, cry, and laugh some more. The world may deal in haves and have nots, but “Blood Brothers” has it all. An exhilarating experience with an emotional punch, delivering more enjoyment than you can possibly hope for.
"Blood Brothers,” with book, music and lyrics by Willy Russell, directed by Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright, presented by Bill Kenwright, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until February 29.
For more information, visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.