BWW Reviews: Half-baked BLOOD BROTHERS Adaptation Needs More Time in the Womb
The announcement that David Kramer would be adapting Willy Russell's BLOOD BROTHERS was an exciting one. A show not seen on South African stages, despite its long run in London's West End from 1988 - 2012, the narrative seemed as though it might suit the 1960s Capetonian setting where Kramer aimed to shift the action, with the socio-economic rift between the so-called Cape Coloured people mirroring the British class system that underpins Russell's tale of twin brothers separated at birth and raised in different circumstances. Months later, the show is on stage at Theatre on the Bay, and the reality of what has been achieved in this adaptation belies the potential that this version of BLOOD BROTHERS held in its conception. While there are some moments that work beautifully, there are many where the shaky ideological foundation upon which this production is built calls the entire exercise into question.
The plot of BLOOD BROTHERS is a fairly straightforward one. Mrs Johnstone is a woman (from Liverpool in the original; here she lives in District 6) who finds herself with seven children and pregnant once again by a husband who has left her for another woman. When she discovers to her dismay that she is carrying twins, she confides in Mrs Lyons, the woman for whom she works as a housemaid, who happens to have had no success in conceiving a child of her own. The two strike a deal that when the children are born, Mrs Lyons will take one of the twins and raise him as her own son. Mickey and Eddie, fraternal twins despite being described in the book of the show as being 'as like each other as two new pins', are raised on opposite sides of the class divide. When they are seven years old, they meet each other and establish a lifelong friendship, which they consecrate in the act of becoming blood brothers upon the discovery that they share the same birthday. Their mothers try to keep them apart, but even when both families move, fate brings them together again. As teenagers, both boys fall in love with a girl called Linda, who ends up marrying Mickey after he impregnates her. This ignites the series of events that leads to the death of both brothers, an incident the audience is told at the top of the show by the Narrator and which is central to the meaning of the sotry of the Johnstone twins.
Russell's original BLOOD BROTHERS started off as a school play, created with Merseyside Young People's Theatre, in 1982. The fully developed version that made its bow in the West End a year later did not completely shake its origins, which are still reflected in elements like the ballad stanzas used by the narrator to tell the story, in the simplified epic structure of the piece and in the generalised socio-political commentary the piece makes. Russell's craft as a musical theatre writer is uneven. There is some great music ("Marilyn Monroe", "My Child", "Easy Terms", "Tell Me It's Not True"), but the score is also characterised by the generic 1980s pop idiom that infiltrated many British musicals of the period, without being as distinctively melodic as the scores of Andrew Lloyd Webber or as inventively diverse as the music composed for CHESS by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. The lyrics are evocative, but unpolished: many half rhymes and an undisciplined metrical relationship between the words and music jar on the ear and disrupt the dramatic build of the musical. And although there are some compelling scenes dealing with the relationships between the different characters, put across in the kind of rich dialogue that is seen in Russell's best works, EDUCATING RITA and SHIRLEY VALENTINE, BLOOD BROTHERS flounders when it comes to fleshing out its themes. When, close to the end of the play, the audience is asked to decide for themselves whether it is superstition or class that led to the brothers' downfall, the thought comes across as trite.
When we stand on the shoulders of giants, our achievements are augmented. But science has also shown us that flaws can similarly become inculcated as iterations develop, say, in the development of a genetic code. The flaws prevalent in the original BLOOD BROTHERS are reproduced in Kramer's adaptation. There are the same slips in craftsmanship when it comes to the lyrics, but to remedy these might have been difficult. Of greater concern, however, is how the socio-economic generalisations play out on an even grander scale in the South African version of BLOOD BROTHERS. For instance, while it appears there was a huge sense of community in Liverpool as there was in District 6, the specifics of the clearance of the slums in Liverpool resonate somewhat differently than the forced removals to which the citizens of District 6 were subjected. For one thing, the destruction of District 6 was motivated by the government's declaration of the borough as a whites-only area. In that context, celebrating the idea of displacing people from their homes to the Cape Flats as a "Bright New Day" - the song that closes the first act - is a complete contradiction of the ethos defining how District 6 should be remembered. Sugar coating the atrocities of apartheid in this way is irresponsible storytelling and reckless artistry. Using a story about a marginalised people for a middle class audience to wipe away guilt and reaffirm their own sense of righteousness by being able to voice tut-tuts of disapproval at the narrative circumstances of the characters rather than rigorously examining the issues that cause them, smacks of exploitation.