Across the calm waters of the English Channel along the Hastings coastline, the mournful cries of a grief-stricken mother could be heard bouncing across the gentle tide. Mrs. Johnstone, played by the talented Niki Colwell Evans, howls as she falls to the ground and the audience of White Rock Theatre wipe a tear from their eye to the accompanying words of ‘I’m not crying’. The bodies of the twin brothers, Mickey and Eddie Johnstone played by Sean Jones and Jo Sleight in Blood Brothers, lay motionless on the stage floor and as the curtains drew their close, the audience clap and cheer in a unified standing ovation.
An edgy production
As I took my seat in Row B of White Rock Theatre with a refreshing glass of Chardonnay in hand, I must admit I didn’t know what to expect from the evening’s production. I’d often seen posters for Blood Brothers scattered around various towns and cities throughout my life. I’d heard it was good. I’d heard it was different from other musicals. A production with an edge, some grit, and an insight into the hardships of working class Liverpudlian life of the 1980s that is often overlooked in the world of scriptwriting and theatrical production.
I noticed a small group of secondary school children whom I later discovered were seeing the production live in tandem with the study of Blood Brothers for their GCSE English text. I soon felt a pang of jealousy and recalled the hated English lessons of my youth perusing A View from the Bridge and Of Mice and Men. This seemed much cooler.
With an open mind and a box of tissues at the ready, as suggested by the very friendly and helpful staff at the theatre, the opening act began. If you, like me, several weeks ago had never seen Blood Brothers before, I assure you I have not dropped a spoiler within the first paragraph. The play does not hide the looming tragedy of the twins’ death and opens with a foreboding warning of the brothers’ fate; a part played most excellently by Richard Munday.
A complex social history entwined with a tragic love story
A frequent presence on the stage, Munday’s subtle interference with the characters acts as a sorrowful yet essential reminder that the story is not to conclude with a happy ending. Whilst the remaining characters stole our hearts and imaginations away with their masterful humour and astounding ability to keep our minds within the present, Munday’s shadow cast across the backdrop of Liverpool’s bustling skyline and the soaring tower of the Liver Building never failed to make my heart sink as the Johnstone twins expertly played out their younger years as innocent children. All entwined in the social and cultural barriers of late twentieth-century Liverpool.
From what I initially believed to be the tale of a tragic love story, the cast of Blood Brothers did an excellent job of highlighting all the essential themes intended by the script’s original writer, Willy Russell. The underlying tensions between the working and higher classes, the unspoken sadness of a woman’s infertility, the strength of traditional values fuelled by religious fervour still singing the tunes of Northern England and the decisions its people made. It was a privilege to watch the complexities of this social history played out in theatre production receive so much attention in what could have so easily been a ‘simple’ love story of two brothers competing for the same woman.
With such dedicated commitment to the social and cultural politics of late twentieth-century Liverpool, the cast needed to rely on their own talents and understanding of their characters’ personalities but also the contexts in which their characters were raised and spent their days. A simplistic set of a Liverpool backdrop, changed after the intermission to rolling fields and blue skies of the Northern countryside, framed by the iconic red brick of Northern terraced city houses allowed the cast to freely change between the small, bustling streets of Liverpool city centre, to the wide, open halls of the Lyons’ stately home, to the comforting, quirky lanes of small, Merseyside villages.
A mother’s grief perfectly captured
A mother’s grief had never been captured so perfectly than in Niki’s performance. A perfect reflection of Mrs. Johnstone’s young care-free years in the production’s infancy gradually descended into the fraught, desperate mother we see sobbing in the final scenes. An endearing Liverpool twang thrown into the ‘songbird’s’ lyrics of ‘snow’ and ‘Monroe’, it was not difficult to ascertain whether Niki was from the Northern city herself; an accent mirrored incredibly effectively in the well-spoken words of Mrs Lyons, played by the talented Paula Tappenden. The way the actors held themselves, spoke, and interacted with others on stage created this poignant parallel between the economic hardships of the working class and the cultural pressures of the upper class ever intensified by the taboo of a woman’s infertility.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the actors on stage was the progression of time and their ability to portray this through their characters’ behaviours and relationships with others. This posed a particular challenge for Sean, Joe, and Olivia Sloyan who portrayed the resilient and heart-torn Linda, but all three must be commended for their talents in demonstrating the passing of time. From Mickey’s awkward and uncomfortable nose swipes and fidgeting as a young boy to Eddie’s cheeky, childish, and often naïve ways, the two men in particular triumphed in tearing the hearts of their audience as they watched the innocence of youth drown in the tragedy and harsh realities of a broken, adult world. It is rare that a stage performance can capture my heart so quickly and ignite such deep care for the characters before me, but the performance of these actors at White Rock Theatre is one that must be seen by all. Whether you wish to reflect on the complications of late-twentieth century England or learn how much, or how little, has changed in the past fifty years, Blood Brothers at White Rock Theatre is one that cannot be missed.
Blood Brothers will be at the Theatre Royal Brighton in October. However, for more details of what’s on at White Rock Theatre in Hastings, visit: White Rock Theatre
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This feature was contributed by Daisy Thomas