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BWW Reviews: Blood Brothers

Ensure that you book as soon as possible to see Manilla Street Productions offering of Blood Brothers at the Chapel Off Chapel. Produced by Karen Jemison and directed by Chris Parker, this portrayal of the tragic story of the Johnstone twins leaves you in little doubt that the price you had to pay to see the show was well and truly warranted. You do not want to be left lamenting, crying out "tell me it's not so" as the sold out sign is posted and you have not got your ticket.

Blood Brothers offers an engaging, compelling, and confronting commentary on society. Set in Britain in the 1960s, the contrast between those who have and those who have not is stark. Despite being set several decades ago, its message and meaning is still relevant today as the social divide between rich and poor remains.

For all the things that money can buy there are some things that only nature - that impartial arbiter oblivious to wealth and fortune - will decide. When Mrs. Johnstone (Chelsea Plumley) falls pregnant with twins while working as a cleaner for the well-off Mrs. Lyons (Glenda Linscott) a grisly deal ensues. Orchestrated by Mrs. Lyons, this seemingly simple solution to Mrs. Johnstone's challenge of coping with her new arrivals provides an apparently perfect answer. However, as it is with life, the devil lay in the detail and the reality of the execution. As the two women soon discover, every secret becomes harder to maintain and their lingering residual guilt will not be eroded by the sands of time.

The deal is exploitative, with Mrs. Lyons clearly keen to capitalize on the socio-economic weaknesses of Mrs. Johnstone in order to fulfill her own maternal ambitions. Built upon myth and superstition, the ensuing story forces you to consider such longstanding dimensions as nature or nurture in determining destiny, and the extent to which the Johnstone boys were in charge of their own path. Russell's message seems to be that while nature has a part to play in destiny, the socially contrived and self-fulfilling dimensions of class, status, and position which are a product of nurture are equally at play in determining the fate of a person.

There is also a constant reminder that everything has a price and that sometimes the price is more than any person could, or should, be willing to pay. Whether it be Mrs. Johnstone's frequent dealings with repossession agencies, or Mrs. Lyons' grappling with the reality of her contrived environment, decisions have consequences. Sometimes these can be more than what was originally bargained. What initially appeared as a great deal can in fact be life changing and generate costs far beyond expectation. The Johnstone boys represent the ultimate cost and it is by pondering their fate that you come to the inescapable conclusion that both Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons were equally complicit in orchestrating this tragedy. They may have been from different backgrounds, but their dogged determination to barter, manipulate, and contrive renders them equally at fault.

Mickey Johnstone (Gareth Keegan) and Eddie Johnstone (Matthew Bradford) ultimately prove that blood is thicker than water, as they fall victim to the self-fulfilled prophecy of their parents. The boys are poles apart yet become best friends. Even after years of separation they reunite and resume old acquaintances until, that is, reality steps in and Mickey and Eddie are forced to embrace adulthood. Their childlike innocence destined to be shattered.

Keegan and Bradford depict the Johnstone twins in an endearing and entertaining manner. Both actors play characters that grow up on stage, with the depiction of the passage from child to adult being central to the success of the story. This demands both physical and emotional journeys from Keegan and Bradford and both are adept in each of these dimensions. While they successfully ham it up during their characters' childhood, they bring a convincing growth and maturity to their roles as the twins face a dawning adulthood. As kids the Johnstone boys were told that if you cross your fingers you are immune to the worst to the world could throw at you. As adults they discover the reality is quite different (although they reach that conclusion at different rates). While Eddie may be able to cross his fingers for a while longer, by virtue of wealth and security, Mickey has no such opportunity and the reality of life is thrust upon him by the fate of his circumstance.

Shakespearian in structure (compare it with Romeo and Juliet), Blood Brothers makes the fate of the characters clear from the outset. The audience knows the end result within the first three minutes of the show. This structure results in an emphasis on the journey. How did such an outcome eventuate? Why was such an outcome possible? This undoubtedly makes the audience's passage more involved, since it affords thought and reflection. This is guided along the way by commentary on matters social and factual from the narrator (Simon Wilton). Wilton plays the role well, with a presence on stage that guides the story without seeking to dominate or distract from the key characters. Wilton's character represents the moral compass of the story, posing questions for the audience to ponder as the story unfolds.

In addition to the actors, a standout of this production is the use of the stage space. It seems to have been a conscious effort to keep the stage clear of the distractions that can come from the grandeur of elaborate sets. The result is a compulsion to focus on the central characters. This is critical to the overall appreciation of Blood Brothers, since it is a story built around people. It thrives on an emotional buy-in from the audience. Such staging choices were well supported by the predominantly black set, making the characters the focus. Meanwhile the contrast between the lit and darkened areas provides a fitting representation of the paths the Johnstone twins will ultimately follow, while also reinforcing the contrast between the comedy and tragedy elements of the story. This effectiveness in staging was particularly evident in the performance of 'Light Romance', where the divergent paths of the main characters are simply but compellingly depicted in the stage area.

Undoubtedly families are the source of many a tragic tale and Willy Russell's Blood Brothers is but another example of how blood is thicker than water. It is also one of those enduring musicals that strongly resonates and holds relevance some thirty-one years after it was first produced. This is largely because the themes it addresses are also enduring. Manilla Street Productions have not diminished this in any manner, depicting the power of Russell's story in a most memorable and effective manner.

SUMMARY: Blood Brothers is a beautiful story and this production draws out the human elements of the story in a wonderfully effective manner that the audience enjoys. Definitely worth seeing if you can get hold of a ticket.

When: 19 March - April 6 2014

Where: The Chapel Off Chapel


PHOTO CREDITS: Supplied by Manilla Street Productions

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