Review: Blood Brothers
The Lady Margaret Players tackle Willy Russell’s trenchant take on class division with middling success
This week sees a new production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers hit the ADC, directed by Lucy Green, Tayo Adewole and Hetty Opayink – although the path to its release may not have been the easiest for its cast and crew, as it began with Zoom rehearsals.
Blood Brothers tells the story of two twins separated at birth; burdened by an excess of mouths to feed, Mrs Johnstone (Monique Knight) chooses to give up one of her children, entrusting him to the care of her wealthy, childless employer Mrs Lyons (Mia Condron-Asquith). All seems well until the lives of the two brothers, raised in starkly different backgrounds yet unaware of their shared history, begin to messily intertwine.
Though the text is perhaps better known as a musical, this non-singing incarnation also has a reputation that precedes it; I myself am among many who can still recite Russell’s libretto almost by heart after studying it for GCSE Drama. As I entered the ADC on Tuesday night, the prospect of reinvention for such a classic text was a promising one – but I am afraid to say it amounted to something less than the sum of its parts.
What follows is a story that must be approached above all with deft handling of tone; even amidst the humour of older actors parading around the stage in the guise of seven-year-old boys, there is an overarching air of inevitable tragedy to Blood Brothers. This is a tricky tightrope often walked ably by the show’s directors, who navigated the text’s rapid shifts between levity and grittiness in a manner that rarely played as erratic.
I was particularly impressed by the performances from Eyoel Abebaw-Mesfin as Mickey, one half of the titular pair, and Eva Carroll as his wife Linda. Whilst other actors perhaps struggled to consistently convey a sense of variety in Russell’s dialogue, Carroll took on her role with remarkably good judgment, allowing herself to relish in the quieter moments of the script.
However, Abebaw-Mesfin was, without a doubt, the standout of the night. He struck me as particularly adept in tackling the shifting tonal frequencies of the narrative, easefully embodying the playfulness of the more comedic sequences, but equally taking me by surprise with an emotional sucker punch just when the time calls for it. It would be amiss not to credit this performance for its wonderful physicality too; Mickey’s decline is shown as much through the way he stands as through dialogue, shoulders gradually slumping under the weight of a society that sees him as disposable.
Amin Elhassan also gives an assured performance as Eddie, though I did feel that greater differentiation was needed between the child and adult versions of his characters.
Blood Brothers is a difficult text to approach with the aim of ‘modernisation’ – Russell’s analysis of class divisions is, after all, so explicitly tied to the context of Thatcherism and the economic recession of the 1980s. But I was interested to see how the directors would explore the changing dynamics that might come with having two actors of colour in the lead roles, potentially opening up conversations about the intersections between race and class, where Russell was solely focused on the latter. It strikes me that this was a missed opportunity – the production plays as ultimately rather faithful to other versions that I have seen, almost to the point of feeling somewhat safe.
At its weakest moments, there even seemed to be some confusion as to what period we were even supposed to be working within: the use of terms such as “roadman” and the conspicuous presence of a Trespass shoebox suggested a more contemporary setting, but this clashed with pre-recorded voiceovers of Margaret Thatcher and a visual aesthetic that felt distinctly 20th-century in its sensibilities.
Unlike the first act, the play’s second act felt slightly under-rehearsed. Though the contours of Russell’s narrative almost border on rushed, the staging of the production felt surprisingly laboured, as both the scenes themselves and the transitions between them could have been far more fluid.
Those familiar with the play will no doubt be aware of its tragic conclusion, which requires careful direction in order to feel like a dramatically earned crescendo. Unfortunately, the aforementioned pacing slightly undermined the impact; although the two lead actors give fantastically raw performances in these moments, it all happens very quickly and would have benefited from having more space to breathe.
I left the ADC on Tuesday night feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Not discounting some brilliant performances and a confident first act, this struck me as a production that felt incomplete, in need of a few more polishing rehearsals before it hit the stage.
Although I would have liked to have seen a new and more interesting take on the text, there is certainly no shame in faithful interpretation. However, this version of Blood Brothers – a play with fire in its belly – comes across as a little too polite.
Blood Brothers is running at the ADC at 7.00 pm from Tuesday 25th January to Saturday 29th. Get your tickets here.
Feature image credits: Daphne Adams