I came to the conclusion a while ago that Bill Kenwright is a nice guy, having listened to his Radio 2 Rock and Roll shows, but where stage production is concerned, he is surely one of the most annoying.
I have seen some of his ‘thrillers’, which have proved to be bordering on the farcical, but there I was, coming out of the magnificent Grand Theatre after seeing Blood Brothers, a musical, thinking what a brilliant, tense finale to a piece of drama I had just witnessed.
The piece was written by Willy Russell, so therefore based on class differences, and what could be a better way to highlight privilege than to write a story of a set of twins born to a working-class mother who are separated shortly after birth, with one of them being given up to a rich woman who was not able to have children of her own. It was obviously not going to end well, as the opening scene was of two young male bodies lying lifeless in the street and being put on stretchers to be transported to the morgue, with the neighbours gathered round to witness the event.
Flashback to the story of Mrs Johnstone, played brilliantly by Linzi Hateley, who meets her husband, falls pregnant to him on several occasions and is then deserted for a younger model whilst expecting twins. She has a cleaning job in a big house owned by Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden) whose husband is working abroad. It is obvious that Mrs Johnstone cannot afford two more mouths to feed and, as her becoming pregnant at just about the time that Mr Lyons went abroad, a plan is hatched for her to give up one of the twins, Eddie, for Mrs Lyons to pass off as her own, whilst she keeps Mickey.
Even her husband, who doesn’t get home until after the birth, is unaware of the deception. As they grow up, the twins’ paths cross a few times and during the first encounter when they are only seven years old, they realise that they share the same birthday and so decide to become blood brothers by cutting their hands and mingling their blood like they have seen on cowboy films. I will gloss over the minutiae of the tale as it becomes a bit involved with superstition and attempts to keep the twins apart, and I most certainly won’t spoil the ending for anyone not yet familiar with the plot. Fortunately, the twins are not identical so, although they feel a bond, their relationship isn’t obvious.
The piece was definitely a play of two halves, the first seeming rather too long. The story obviously needed telling, which was done by use of a narrator, Robbie Scotcher, but the innumerable scenes illustrating what a lovable family of Scouse scallies the Johnstones were, began to grate a bit. The second half proved to be a lot more absorbing, and darker, charting the course of Mickey’s downfall through his courtship, marriage and redundancy, resulting in his involvement in a crime, having been recruited by his older brother, Sammy, and finally his mental breakdown. The contrasting story of Eddie’s rise and rise was the counterpoint which led to the denouement.
It was also a play of two halves in that the first ran flawlessly, whereas the second began with a false start because, according to the spokesman who came on stage just after the curtain was about to rise, some of the systems needed to be reset. Hey, stuff happens, and it was handled very well by keeping us informed. Other than that glitch and my reservations about the length of act one, I had a couple of problems with an otherwise superb production. The first was very slight and I almost hate myself for pointing it out, but that is my job. There is a song which permeates throughout the piece, comparing the characters and the plot to that of the story of Marilyn Monroe. During the first act Linzi Hateley pronounced ‘Monroe’ with a really broad Liverpudlian accent. Unfortunately, this seemed to disappear as the show continued. Other than that, she was superb and even carried on being Mrs Johnstone after the play had ended, when she still seemed truly moved by the situation, even at the curtain call. The second, more puzzling point, I will come to later.
I’ll go so far as to say that every single one of the performers was wonderful and there were some great touches. A few of the cast had multiple parts and one hilarious moment came when the chap who had been playing the milkman came on with a white coat and stethoscope to tell Mrs Johnstone she was pregnant with twins. ‘Aren’t you the milkman?’, she said, to which he replied, ‘I used to be, but I have been studying medicine and I am now your gynaecologist!’ Sadly, the actor is not given a mention in the programme. Alexander Patmore was brilliant in his portrayal of Mickey through his childhood, adolescence and disintegration into chronic depression. Joel Benedict as Eddie and Danielle Corlass as love interest Linda were both superb.
All of the production team, from director Bob Tomson, lighting designer Nick Richings, Dan Samson the sound designer and musical director Scott Adler did a magnificent job in cranking up the tension, from the flippancy of the first act to the dramatic conclusion. I must say, however, that I think that Andy Walmsley, the designer, although just as good as his colleagues, was trying to earn a few Brownie points from his boss by having the word Everton painted on a wall, graffiti style. As well as indicating that this was the Catholic part of the City, thus explaining the large family, Mr Kenwright just happens to be the chairman of that self-same football club. What are the chances?
As I have previously mentioned, the climax was extremely tense and there were a few surprises in the way in which the story ended but, and this is where my second problem with the production comes into play. The beginning of the play showed the two boys dead in the street, whereas they met their demise inside a building nowhere near their homes.
I am sure that Blood Brothers will continue to tour in various productions for many years to come and it thoroughly deserves to do so, but I would just like to end with a plea to Bill Kenwright. Will you please ensure your plays which are advertised as thrillers are at least half as gripping as this musical. Thank you.
All photographs provided by Leeds Grand Theatre.