While not a masterclass on how Blood Brothers should be performed, some great performances and powerful vocals help keep this piece afloat.
Blood Brothers is one of those classic plays that all good GCSE drama students know fondly. As two of such people, we were excited to see how this version played out, and if it allowed us to re-live such a specific and rehearsed part of our youth.
The reason that Blood Brothers remains so popular with audiences is because of the heart-wrenching story it so effortlessly portrays, where we see the downfalls of beloved characters as though their story was written at their birth. Creator Willy Russell is very good at unwrapping the vapid futility of life, where “if only we didn’t live in life as well as dreams”. We want what we don’t think we can get, and we settle for what we don’t deserve. Russell’s social commentary is still relevant now, with “what we, the English, have come to know as class”. Systematic divides are not superstition, and it can’t be classed as bad luck if somebody else sets you up to fail.
A great testament to the power of Blood Brothers perhaps lies in how the simplicity of the staging never failed to capture the magnitude of the story. Moving from inside expansive manor houses to rundown streets, the staging never tries to pull off more than it’s capable of, relying on a mixture of props and lights to create different atmospheres. As the time-jumps of the story progressed, so did the staging adapt (most notably in the interval), but everything felt smooth and slick, even if lighting sometimes lagged a little in the wings. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was innovative. Rather than hiding scene changes with dim lights, Blood Brothers rather ingeniously has its actors do the heavy-lifting for a speedier, and surprisingly less obnoxious, quick-change that helped the momentum of the performance continue.
Notably, in most of Willy Russell’s plays, he takes a lot of swings and consequently suffers a few misses. There are quite a few moments in Blood Brothers that suffer as such: two people walking past each other, staring, enforcing theatrics and losing realism; unprovoked intensity contradicting the rest of the scene; the narrator‘s (Robbie Scotcher) imposing presence occasionally disrupting the heart of moments. It’s a shame because Blood Brothers captures the idealisation of childhood slowly becoming lost in the harsh realism of the world, but in this rendition of the play, you can’t help but realise you’re only watching a play. It’s a fault of the direction most likely, but also somewhat in the limitations of the writing at times.
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the performance at the Mayflower was the casting of Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone. The character of Mrs Johnstone usually tells of a young woman, trapped by the unending monotony of working-class life, who struggles to provide for her ever-expanding family. She is a clear metaphor for the lost youth in the lower classes in the 1960s, yet Paul has been performing since the 1970s. In 1997, in fact, Paul made her musical theatre debut as Mrs Johnstone on the West End, the performance being produced by Bill Kenwright who also co-directed the production currently playing in the Mayflower. After being voted ‘the definitive Mrs Johnstone’, Paul is reprising the role solely for a farewell tour. This passion from Paul removes any doubt that she is the wrong choice, and her astounding vocals throughout (as well as tears during the bows) adds a special dimension to the experience. Yet, it feels wrong to ignore the fact that Paul’s acting sometimes suffers from a lack of guttural force, a sheer driving power in the moments of frustration and anger, which she effortlessly captures in those more poignant moments.
Yet, Blood Brothers thankfully bolsters more than competent actors in its casting of Mickey (Alexander Patmore), Eddie (Joel Benedict), Linda (Danielle Corlass) and Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden). The relationship that Patmore and Benedict conjure is palpable, as they are able to physically bounce off each other as children while effectively showing the strains of their later years, while their harmonies and voices are truly well-matched and their comedic timing rarely fails. Corlass, on the other hand, puts on the almost iconic petulant high-voice of Linda that feels like a character staple at this point to perfection, and she does well to act as the driving force of the tensions that split Mickey and Eddie. Tappenden also deserves her credit where it’s due because it’s easy to hate the character and also understand the complexity and pain of the situation she finds herself in. On one hand, she’s just a woman who wants her own family, and on the other, her motivations frame her almost like the villain of this story. All these compliments hardly feel revolutionary though when we learn that many of these actors have reprised their roles from both West End performances and UK tours.
While this performance of Blood Brothers may have had a few faults, it should receive credit where credit is due, as evident by the crowd’s reaction after the finale. The cast left and reentered the stage for three bows, where the entire audience remained standing.
Blood Brothers is playing at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from 7-11 September 2021. You can find out more information here.