Hayes Theatre Co, February 10
Blood Brothers, the hit musical by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), premiered in Liverpool in 1983 then ran in London’s West End for 24 years.
Last staged professionally in Sydney in 1994, the show’s reputation and popularity goes before it – so much so that this new, small-scale production, produced by Enda Markey in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, extended its season before it even opened. Days after opening it was almost sold out.
Though there is room to plumb a deeper well of anger and emotion, it’s a lively, well-staged production with some lovely performances.
Set in Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of fraternal twins, separated at birth when their mother Mrs Johnstone can’t afford to keep them both. Persuaded by the well-to-do Mrs Lyons, who she cleans for, to secretly give her one of the babies, the boys grow up on different sides of the track but become best friends without knowing their true relationship. However, the class difference and their love of the same woman have tragic consequences.
Russell wrote the show as a furious response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative with an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies. Russell uses repetition in the score quite effectively though a Marilyn Monroe motif eventually feels over-worked.
Andrew Pole directs on an ingenious set by Anna Gardiner that swings open to reveal interiors, with the tight four-piece band led by Michael Tyack hidden backstage, while her bright costuming brings colour to the dark, depressing world she creates.
Helen Dallimore is a warm, vital Mrs Johnstone. She captures her resilience but could do more to convey the toll taken on her by the terrible knocks and stresses she endures – though her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True is heartbreaking.
As the twins, who age from seven to young men, Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden give beautifully judged performances, managing to convey a convincing connection between them, despite being worlds removed.
It’s hard to play children without being gratingly twee, but Fox and Bowden, along with Christy Sullivan who plays their close friend Linda, do a terrific job here.
Fox exudes a knockabout, streetwise energy as Mickey, the youngest of the unruly, poverty-stricken Johnstone brood and his descent into depression is powerfully done. Bowden brings a gentle, earnest sweetness to Edward who is brought up by the posh Lyons family. Both are in great voice, and vocally suited to their characters.
Sullivan shines in a moving performance as Linda, the girl they both love, and the scenes between the three of them have a powerful dramatic and emotional force.
The scenes featuring the well-to-do Lyons played by Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lyons feel less authentic, though this is in large part to do with these characters being more sketchily written. But all the cast – which also includes Erin James and Jamie Kristian – work together well as a tight ensemble, while Michael Cormick is a suitably ominous presence as the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets, foreshadowing the tragedy like a Greek chorus, and sings with great assurance.
Lyrically and musically, Blood Brothers isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated of musicals but it has a gritty simplicity that goes straight to the heart, leaving many in the opening night audience in tears at the end.
Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 15. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 15