Blood Brothers, playwright Willy Russell’s only musical, was originally written as a school play before transferring to the West End, where it won an Olivier Award for best musical and ran in various revivals for a staggering 10,000 performances. It is the world’s third-longest running musical behind Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Sometimes, there’s just no accounting for taste.
The story could be straight out of Greek tragedy or, more accurately, Italian farce. Mrs Johnstone [Chelsea Plumley], the down-and-out working class mother, has too many babies and her employer, the well-to-do Mrs Lyons [Glenda Linscott], hasn’t got any. So when Mrs Johnstone finds out she is having twins, the two women make a pact. Mrs Lyons will take one of the boys, and raise him as her own.
There is some hint of the reality of class opportunity in these early sections, and the song ‘Marilyn Monroe’ carries a certain emotional poignancy at first. Billy Elliot has clearly been influenced by this downbeat approach to an opening musical number, although it handled the emotional modulation with far more assurance than anything we get here.
Russell’s insistence on heavy-handed signposts to the boys’ fates renders the set-up faintly ludicrous, like something out of a medieval morality play. This is only exacerbated by the presence of the Narrator [Simon Wilton], who stalks the women throughout the play, harping on about debts and dues and payment.
Having established without a doubt that the boys are going to grow up to cause each other’s deaths, the musical then makes the unforgivable error of showing us the boys growing up and causing each other’s deaths. The entire first act has poor Mickey [Gareth Keegan] and rich Eddie [Matthew Bradford] befriending each other as 8 year olds, with local girl Linda [Lisa-Marie Parker] stuck in the middle.
It’s a complete waste of narrative energy. A wealthy mother’s consternation and a poor mother’s guilt are the only source of conflict in the first half, if you ignore the cheesy interjections of the increasingly irritating Narrator. Wilton has been encouraged by Chris Parker’s direction to go for broke in the number ‘Shoes Upon the Table’, and the effect is a cross between Jim Carrey and Max Headroom. Perhaps the lack of scenery is a result of all that chewing.
The second act has the boys grown into men, still blood brothers despite the widening class gap. Considering the fact that the audience has been told the ending at the beginning, we might be forgiven for expecting some surprises along the way. There aren’t any. If there is any catharsis in the finale, it’s surely due to the sense that we’ve come to the end of this turgid mess.
For all that, this production has some bright spots. The central performances from the boys and their mothers are all very good, particularly Plumley as the doomed heart of the tale. She is superb. Parker is also lovely as Linda, the only performer to make a seamless transition from child to adult.
The musical direction [Andrew Patterson] is great, and the sound and lighting design [Marcello Lo Ricco and Scott Allen] are first class. Chris Parker’s direction is incredibly persuasive from a visual and spatial perspective, but utterly ham-fisted emotionally. What should be downplayed is overplayed, and what should be emphasised is limpid and awkward.
Willy Russell’s take on the nature/nurture debate may be derisory, and his discussion of class makes James Cameron’s Titanic look like Great Expectations, but perhaps it’s all just a question of taste. Simplistic and manipulative morality tales sufficed in the theatre for hundreds of years, and have clearly lost none of their appeal, but surely we deserve better than this. I pity the kids who had to do it for their school play.
Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Thursday 20 March 2014
Season continues to 6 April 2014
Bookings: (03) 8290 7000 or online at: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au
Image: Chelsea Plumley as Mrs Johnstone – by Chris Parker
Review: Tim Byrne