By Willy Russell
Directed by Stephen Robertson
Musical Direction by Richard Marrett
The Court Theatre, Christchurch | June 28-August 2
Musical theatre is not a genre I’m typically invested in. By nature, it requires a hefty amount of suspension of disbelief. A show like Blood Brothers often straddles the line, flicking back and forth between ridiculous and immersive. At best it manages to weave the two together, seamlessly.
Loosely based on the 1844 novella The Corsican Brothers by Alexander Dumas, the story is a classic tale of nature versus nurture: Mrs Johnstone (Ali Harper) is a single mother struggling in working class Liverpool in the 1960s. She already has too many mouths to feed, so agrees to give away one of her newborn fraternal twins to the wealthy Mrs Lyons (Juliet Reynolds-Midgely). This deal is sealed when Mrs Lyons preys on Mrs Johnstone’s superstitious nature and states that “if twins separated at birth learn they were once of a pair they will both immediately die.”
This is not exactly the stuff subtlety is made of. Luckily the goal of a good musical is to make you feel. If it makes you think—well, that’s just icing on the cake, right? And The Court Theatre’s production manages to do a little bit of both, shedding light on class struggle, romantic longing, and life’s disappointments.
For all intents and purposes, Mrs Johnstone is the heart of the musical. If she cannot pump life into the production then the whole thing dies. Luckily Ali Harper and her magnificent voice serve the production well. She handles all her songs expertly, giving every single note a pang of regret. Juliet Reynolds-Midgely as Mrs Lyons does an equally good job in a far less flattering role, essentially playing the antagonist of the piece. The better her performance the more detestable her character is. It cannot be easy playing a manic mother that borders on cartoonish villain, but she does it well and even manages to give a semblance of sympathy to the role when the script allows for it.
The titular blood brothers, Mickey and Eddie, are performed with considerable talent by Benjamin Hoetjes and Cameron Douglas, respectively. Both are convincing as they play their characters through different stages of life—first as mere children, then as teenage boys, and finally as men. The adolescent antics they both get up to, as best friends and unknowing brothers, anchor their eventually doomed relationship. Hoetjes has the harder job of the two, having to play a boy who has been forced to grow up far too quickly in circumstances much too unforgiving. His eventual descent into a broken man is jarring at first but gains powerful clarity in the story’s final moments. Douglas has an easier role with his posh, successful antithesis to Houetjes, but is on-point with his dorky characterisation, serving as a comedic highlight.
Much could also be said of the supporting players: Nick Purdie as Sammy is an effective bully and bad influence, Kathleen Burns is a believable and sympathetic love interest, and Roy Snow does a great job jumping from milk man to absent-father to gynecologist.
The music is handled expertly by Richard Marrett. These are not typical, catchy pop-tunes ala Wicked. This is music that mostly evokes old times and longing. That is not to say there are no standout numbers, though. ‘The Devil’s Got Your Number’ has a contemporary edge to it that works wonders, and ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ is a melancholy primal cry to end all primal cries. The rest of the songs work well, fitting together and pushing the narrative forward, never feeling superfluous.
Ben Rentoul’s sound design mostly lends itself well to the production, but the ominous music cues that occur during pivotal moments often serve to detract and undermine the potency of the script’s Brechtian devices. The Narrator, performed with a deliciously devilish touch by Matt Pike, is already a constant reminder that secrets weigh heavily on the characters. We already know this tragic tale will have no happy ending.
Director Stephen Robertson has done a great job with the set. It has a spare, elegant design, featuring little to no furnishings, except for a lamppost, a table with chairs, brick columns, and some occasional props. Combined with Giles Tanner’s complementing lighting design, Liverpool in the 1960s through to the 1980s is effortlessly conveyed with mostly just a bare stage.
The first half of the production struggles with the weight of its plot contrivances, but something magic happens in the second half of the play—those contrivances become invisible and all that is left is raw emotion. No, Blood Brothers is not a very believable story, and The Court Theatre’s polished production makes no attempts to amend that. But, by the end of the show, you won’t care to overthink it. You’ll just be moved.