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BWW Reviews: BLOOD BROTHERS - A Reminder of What Musical Theatre Does Best

BLOOD BROTHERS is by no means a small musical. When you look at the stats, it is in fact something of a phenomenon. Debuting in 1983, it won the Olivier for Best New Musical, going on to become the third longest-running musical in West End history. The musical had a Tony-nominated Broadway premiere in 1993, and amongst other international tours, there have been two successful Australian productions, both featuring all-star casts. It is a measure of this musical, a measure of its content, that BLOOD BROTHERS offers some of the most coveted roles in the musical theatre cannon. From Carole King to Sporty Spice, BLOOD BROTHERS has gathered an eclectic and impressive alumni of performers from across the globe.

BLOOD BROTHERS is still at its core, however, an intimate musical. A play with a soundtrack, where many musicals are built the other way round. Written by Willy Russell of EDUCATING RITA and SHIRLEY VALENTINE fame, BLOOD BROTHERS is a musical where the majority of songs are interior - monologues and rambles of consciousness where the characters reveal their minds and hearts to the audience, but seldom to each other. BLOOD BROTHERS is a show primarily about secrets kept, and the lives of good people beholden to their very worst choices.

You want to get that across in a musical theatre production without falling into melodrama or caricature? Then you need a bloody good cast - and thankfully this new Australian production from Enda Markey and Hayes Theatre Co has just that. In the intimate Hayes Theatre venue, where every cough, laugh or sob from the audience becomes part of the drama, this cast has their patrons with them every step of the way. From the somber opening, where they walk down through the audience to the stage, through the wrenching final scene, the cast is fully exposed. There's nowhere to hide in a 120-seat theatre, and here, every actor rises to the challenge.

Helen Dallimore has bucket loads of charisma to carry her through the early, happier years of Mrs Johnstone. As Mrs J falls into despair, Dallimore unleashes her controlled voice to full effect at just the right times. Her Mrs Johnstone is a woman you hold out hope for, even if The Narrator has given away her destiny in the very first scene. Dallimore's devastation in the closing number Tell Me It's Not True is all the more resonant because we almost understand why she did what she did all those years ago.

Michael Cormick is that fate-sealing Narrator who follows Mrs J about. Cormick plays the role with the perfect amount of wry menace, and his voice is quite simply one of our finest. Sing me the weather Mr. Cormick. Sing me my name. Sing me the stars, and the destiny of a young woman who gives her baby away. I would be more than happy to have you as the voice in my head, no matter the context.

If BLOOD BROTHERS is a story anchored by Mrs Johnstone and The Narrator, it pivots and turns on the performances of the two young men playing the eponymous brothers, Mickey and Edward. Bobby Fox gives us a Mickey to love, an earnest, hopeful kid who wants that love. Taking Mickey from a plucky boy to a grown man with all that hope leached out of him, Fox never misses a beat. He is a believable, tragic Mickey, and he plays beautifully against Blake Bowden's privileged, eager Eddie. Both men certainly have stunning voices, but it is their fine acting that makes this equal and opposite pair so special.

While Fox and Bowden bring humour, and a kind of soul sadness to the show, Christy Sullivan as Linda brings the heart. Sullivan was in fact the revelation of the night for me. During the pivotal Light Romance scene, where Linda turns from Mickey to Edward, she manages to hurt your heart without saying a word. Here is the real tragedy of BLOOD BROTHERS, the inescapable, binding nature of class, and the price paid for trying to escape it, not just for yourself, but for the people you love. That Sullivan so richly conveys the tragedy - without saying a word - is a testament to her talent, and very much makes her a performer to watch.

This is an economical show, with the supporting performers playing a variety of roles throughout. The main cast is well supported by Phillip Lowe, Jamie Kristian and Erin James, and Bronwyn Mulcahy tackles the somewhat thankless role of Mrs Lyons with as much depth as the character allows. It's my only issue with BLOOD BROTHERS, really - and it has been with every production I've seen. Mrs Lyons doesn't give her actress any room to move. She's written as a cliché of an uptight, on her way to histrionic woman, and that makes it hard to feel sympathy or any level of understanding for her choices. Mulcahy goes for a kind of simmering desperation with her Mrs Lyons in this production, and it works - but again, only as much as this character allows.

All in all, this Andrew Pole directed production of BLOOD BROTHERS benefits from the stripping back required by its venue. Anna Gardiner's set has just enough detail (the occasional glimpse of a framed picture of the Pope through Mrs. Johnstone's front door is a perfect, revealing touch), and Christopher Page's lighting is suitably moody. The four-piece band, led by Michael Tyack, plays off stage, which lends itself to the economy of the piece, and the year-old Hayes Theatre brings with it a unique kind of off-Broadway, I'm about to watch something special vibe, before the show has even begun.

This is a production you want to see, at a theatre you want to support. Grab one of the few remaining seats still available, and go get a reminder of what musical theatre has always done best - the openhearted telling of people's stories. Take a handful of those tissues on offer with you, too - because these stories, and the people telling them, will have a good crack at your heart along the way.


in association with Hayes Theatre Co


Willy Russell's


Hayes Theatre Co,

Until March 15

For tickets and more information, click here.

Images: Kurt Sneddon, Supplied.

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