Image: Photography by Trent Rouillon
Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers (1983) is supposedly based on Alexandre Dumas’ novella, The Corsican Brothers (1844). Each tells the tale of babies separated at birth; each spans decades, and there is love, betrayal, death – Blood Brothers does seem to have Dumas’ stamp of high drama – but, dig a little deeper into Russell’s own life, and you’ll find the seed of Blood Brothers was planted in his own childhood.
When the Olivier Award winning West End production of Blood Brothers closed in 2012, after 24 years, Mr. Russell gave a rare interview which shines some light on the matter. “I am very interested in nature versus nurture. When I look at myself or catch sight of a gesture I make and see my father … I also know I might have drunk myself to death at 30. Luckily, I was saved by my in-laws, who nurtured me.” He also speaks at length about the lack of trust he felt for his father, and his belief that the extensive amount of time spent with his mother, grandmother and aunts growing up enabled him to write convincing female characters.
In Harvest Rain’s latest production directed by Tim O’Connor with Musical Direction by Maitlohn Drew, the twin brothers are Mickey (Zach Anthony Curran) and Edward (Shaun Kohlman). The boys are born in 1950s’ Liverpool to Mrs. Johnstone (Amanda Muggleton) – good time girl and mother of 7 – but are then promptly separated at birth. One is given away, on the promise of a better life, to Mrs. Lyons (Julie Cotterell) the wealthy but barren woman whose house Mrs. Johnstone cleans. One grows up rich, the other poor. The boys meet in the street when they’re 7 and form an immediate bond, becoming ‘blood brothers.’ What follows is the winding tale of their separate paths, ultimately leading to their tragic end.
But this show is not about story; Willy Russell does a fabulous job of completely ruining any sense of suspense we might’ve had by giving away the ending in the Prologue. No, this story is about character, motivation and idea – an actor’s dream, really. And there are some very strong actors in this production. The women – who were indeed convincingly written – I loved the most. Musical theatre matriarch Amanda Muggleton gave us a heartbreaking Mrs. Johnstone who buzzed with warmth. Her husky voice lent the role honesty, and the guttural delivery of the song “Easy-terms” to her lost child had me done and dusted. Honestly folks, don’t become a mother; that game’s for suckers – you never recover your heart.
Julie Cotterell donned the chops, adeptly negotiating the tragic Mrs. Lyons to lend frailty and empathy to a character who could so easily have been a cardboard cutout villainess. Sparkling credit must go to second year Harvest Rain intern Stacey de Waard, who more than held her own playing charming love-interest Linda with maturity beyond her years and experience. Truthful and utterly believable, Ms. de Waard was captivating in the role and I dare say, it won’t be the last we see of her on Brissy stages.
WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts) grad Zack Anthony Curran was poor boy Mickey Johnstone, in body and spirit, and his voice soared. Mr. Curran’s character transition from boy to man gave us a glimpse of his versatility as an actor. Terrific stuff! Shaun Kohlman was well cast as rich boy Edward Lyons, and his delivery of the achingly sweet “I’m Not Saying a Word” to Linda in Act 2 was a goose-bump moment. Just quietly, I would go back and see the show again for that song alone (a true music theatre tragic am I.) The music may be simple, but it stays with you. Having never seen the show or heard the score I enjoyed it instantly, and I’m still humming it days later.
The small but mighty role of Sammy (Mickey’s rogue brother) was played with relish by the enormously watchable Lewis Edwards, and Mr. Lyons by Dale Pengelly, who did the role credit considering its challengingly intermittent nature.
Josh McIntosh’s clever design and costuming were a delight particularly in the use of colour and texture in the space – very Liverpudlian. Jason Glenwright’s lighting design was as canny as ever working hand in hand with the travelling narrative and lending warmth or a stark chill when necessary.
There were, however, other elements of the production that made me uneasy, and some of them relate to the venue. I’ve actually never heard sound done well in the Cremorne, unless it’s in an un-mic’d play. Now I’m no technical buff, but I’m beginning to think it’s something about the space? Or perhaps it’s just the shows I’ve seen? I don’t know; feel free to enlighten me in the comments below. It just seemed an uneasy balance, and there was the odd intonation issue that may have been a result of actors not being able to hear themselves or others with clarity.
But other things troubled me as well. I could look past the sound, the accent slips and the teething problems – 2 weeks page-to-stage is a short rehearsal period. Was it the narrator? Josh Te Paa did a fine job and sang well but the role confused me somewhat – did we need a narrator? Was it the ensemble? Perhaps. The ensemble, made up of Harvest Rain interns, were upbeat and energized as in all of the company’s shows, but in a play like Blood Brothers, that effervescent show-biz energy can be distracting. The text demands truthful performances – yes there are moments of grand humour amongst the drama – but too much razzle-dazzle or subconscious focus-pulling can be enormously disengaging. I’ve always believed that the strength of a show lies in the strength of the ensemble, which leaves me with mixed feelings about pairing professional principals with a learning ensemble. Then again, what a fabulous opportunity for them to learn their craft alongside industry professionals! Told you – mixed feelings. I suppose, in the end, it’s all about balance.
Speaking of the end, the show closes with the emotive “Tell Me It’s Not True” sung by Ms. Muggleton and the Company. I challenge you to not collapse into a blubbering heap at this point. Brisbane, go see Blood Brothers. Go on, ‘ave a cry.
Blood Brothers by Willy Russell is playing at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until August 17th.