‘Blood Brothers’ was Brecht-acular.
It is odd to think of ‘Blood Brothers’ as the third longest-running musical in West End’s history (having played for over 24-years) given that it has all the makings of an underground cult classic rather than a blockbuster hit. But after seeing this production at the Gold Coast’s humble Javeenbah Theatre Company, its enduring popularity becomes entirely understandable.
The story is presented as a rather harrowing urban legend. Mrs Johnstone is a working-class single mother of a large Liverpudlian family, struggling to make ends meet on her wage as a cleaner, for the Lyonses, – a wealthy couple who live nearby. When she discovers she has fallen pregnant with twins she fears she can no longer support her family. Her employer, Mrs Lyons, is desperate for children of her own and so, in her desperation, Mrs Johnstone agrees to give up one of the pair to Mrs Lyons after they are born.
The twins themselves, Mickey and Edward, grow up in their extremely disparate existences, meeting several times throughout their lives without ever knowing of their true biological connection. Eddie is wealthy yet lonely; Mickey is poor but loved. Together, they long for the fruits of each other’s worlds.
A story of twins separated at birth is hardly a new idea. In 2019, one could even argue it’s now overdone. But what’s special about ‘Blood Brothers’ is that this story is only surface level. Beneath it, playwright Willy Russell has crafted a powerful allegory; a didactic warning about the devastating impact of classism and the blinding effects of privilege.
Katie Steuart-Robins, one of the Gold Coast’s most promising young directors, clearly understands the importance of Russell’s underlying message. She has focused on drawing out the subtle motifs of the highly thematic script and crafted them in such a way that the show’s meaning, while in no way heavy-handed, is well understood by the misty-eyed audience members by the closing number.
Bringing such a vision to the stage requires a cast that is able to go beyond the level of ‘performativity’ required by many other musicals. This is an “actor’s” musical, and Steuart-Robins has found those to entrust with such challenging roles.
Leading the troupe as Mrs Johnstone, Della Days could have easily opted to play it for the audience’s pity. But Days, it feels, wants us to rally behind her rather than pity her. Her Mrs Johnstone is a strong woman whose strength has been muddied by circumstance. There is an undercurrent of stoicism and resolve in her throughout and this makes the tragedies of her life all that more impactful for us. This hugely successful portrayal, combined with Days’ powerful vocals, make for a performance that is truly something to experience.
As Mrs Johnstone’s antithesis, Mrs Lyons, Sally Wood reminds us all why she is one of the region’s most beloved performers. Although she is the antagonist of the story, Wood doesn’t play up the villainy. Instead, she plays a sincere person who tragically allows paranoia and desperation to mar her sense of morality. We understand her. We empathise with her. And yes, we hate her. All by Wood’s calculated and meticulous design.
The titular brothers, Mickey and Eddie, are played by Ethan Liboiron and Dom Bradley respectively. Although the two are physically very dissimilar, the synchronicity of their energy and charisma sells the relationship. They match each other beautifully; essential, as it is on this connection that the success of the show really hinges. Both actors are required to play out the entire lives of their characters, beginning from 7 years old, and there is no send-up in this. They are committed and sincere in all aspects.
Liboiron’s Mickey is a burst of frenetic energy from the moment he appears and it is difficult to look away. His idiosyncrasies are so well considered that he retains the essence and core of the character – from his naïve childhood to explorative adolescence, to his dark and traumatic adulthood. It is a performance into which Liboiron has fully poured his impressive skill set. The payoff, as a result of this, is breathtaking.
Bradley’s Eddie, the brother raised in a far wealthier household, is the bridge between the two social classes. Bradley plays this with such a genuine innocence that we happily forgive him for his obliviousness to his own privilege. In one moment early on, in which a young Eddie asks Mrs Johnstone why, if she dislikes her lifestyle so much, does she not just “buy a different house”, it would be easy to hate him. But Bradley’s Eddie is not played as a snob. He is himself a victim of England’s class structure and regimes of social power, and the private torment behind the actor’s eyes as Eddie is poignant as he is split between worlds. Bradley conveys the subtlety of the show’s message with a beautifully understated interpretation.
The principal cast is ably supported by an ensemble that immerses the audience into the dramatic action, moving throughout the space and launching the production off of the stage itself. The standouts here are Sarah Hunt, a powerhouse as Mickey’s girlfriend, Linda, and Ethan Speight, as Mickey’s destructive older brother, Sammy. As the Narrator, Kat Brand has a powerful, and at times chilling voice that fills the intimate venue.
A less effective choice made here is the decision to rely so heavily on realism for the set design. For a play that could easily be described as naturalistic Brecht (complete with narration, onstage costume changes, audience involvement and social commentary) a traditional box set seems unwarranted. That isn’t to say the set doesn’t serve its purpose – a symbolic centre divide makes sense and some extremely well-synchronised entrances and exits on specific beats are a fantastic addition to a show without choreography – but a cohesive aesthetic is missing from the conventional design. A more abstract interpretation could have been used to enhance some of the subtle symbols to which Steuart-Robins is so finely attuned.
‘Blood Brothers’ is a great choice for Javeenbah Theatre Company – an unassuming venue of artistic merit and integrity that is unafraid to explore more avant-garde works than its competitors. It is a theatre that rarely puts a foot wrong and their latest production is a testament to that.
Despite being set in another time and place, ‘Blood Brothers’ commentary about social injustice and privilege is as relevant to us, today, here in Australia as it ever was before. On the Gold Coast, one doesn’t have to look far to find yet another dusted off production of a tired, bums-on-seats, traditional musical. The opportunity to see a show with relevance and meaning is much rarer, especially one as deftly handled as this is.
Don’t squander it. See ‘Blood Brothers’ while you can.
‘Blood Brothers’ runs until Saturday, April 13 2019, at Javeenbah Theatre Company in Nerang. For tickets, book online at www.javeenbah.org.au.