Friday, January 20, 2012
Blood Brothers – The Musical. Book, Music and Lyrics by Willy Russell
Reviewed by Frank McKone
What I liked about this production, which has already won Canberra Critics’ Circle awards in 2011, is that Stephen Pike captured the right style of performance for a script with an interesting mix of intentions. This showed a knowledgeable approach which drew from his cast a sincerity in their singing and acting which made the musical worthwhile to watch for its meaning as much as for entertainment.
It’s not hard to find some rather different examples on You Tube for contrast, since the show has been produced, on all sorts of stages, just about continuously since its original incarnation in 1981 in the Merseyside Young People's Theatre program
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_Brothers_%28musical%29#cite_note-1 ) .
It attracts comments like This is one of those songs [Tell Me It’s Not True] that is really sad when you hear it on its own, but when you find out the real story behind it, it is actually so upsetting and shocking. Amazing song, I went to see this show for a school trip, I was crying so much my teacher had to check if I was alright during it. . . AbsolutelyAllybum, as well as a raging argument about Spice Girl Melanie C’s accent because it wasn’t proper scouse since she was actually born across the water in Birkenhead, not in Merseyside in Liverpool.
I’m originally a Londoner, so I couldn’t tell the difference, but I was impressed that Doreen Robinson as accent coach succeeded in gaining consistency, and showing up the characters’ class differences, so the setting seemed real enough to me. And, after all, class was the central issue that you would expect to find in a theatre-in-education script in Maggie Thatcher’s England, especially in Liverpool. Keeping the original setting, I think, was the right decision – I’m not sure Blood Brothers in Cronulla would have worked without a major re-write.
Russell’s ‘mix of intentions’ as I see it relates to Blood Brothers’ origins. On the one hand, it seems, there was a literary source in the 1844 novella The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, père, which provided not only the basic melodramatic plot, but allowed the issue of the role of the devil (which fitted with the Liverpool tradition of Catholicism) and immoral behaviour resulting in guilt and inevitable death to be a major theme. This would be a great source for discussion in the classroom.
On another hand, Russell seems to have wanted to emphasise in a Brechtian manner the inevitable results of capitalist social class warfare. British drama teachers I met in the 1980s seemed obsessed with a revival of Marxism, and Thatcher was certainly a major force to be opposed. Interestingly enough, this theme also takes Blood Brothers back to the 19th Century, to a then famous melodrama called The Factory Lad by John Walker (1832). It also shows connections to Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, especially in the role of the Narrator/Devil, and, in its ending, to Mother Courage and her Children.
On a third hand, psychology is a major theme on two fronts: is Mrs Lyons driven insane by her natural woman’s need to have a child leading to her forcing her social advantage on Mrs Johnstone to gain the twin Edward, then trying to murder the mother when the secret in the locket is revealed, and then revealing to the other twin, Mickey, that Edward loves the girl in common, Linda? Is this real psychology, or some kind of hangover from 19th Century / Freudian ideas of women’s hysteria? Or Jungian myth? Or just a literary device to push the plot along? I’m not sure what Russell meant here.
But on the second front, there is the important issue of depression and the proper treatment of it. Mickey’s depression has a real cause – unemployment, desire to support his wife and child, and imprisonment when crime seemed the only alternative. But is the addiction he develops to the medication, and his uncontrolled and violent behaviour when he stops the medication, true to life? Here’s another great classroom topic.
Where Stephen Pike and his team, backstage and onstage, got it right was to recognise that Russell has written a work full of symbols. It is not naturalism – no musical is, in the sense that people don’t normally sing at every emotional opportunity – and so the singing of each song stops the action with just enough Brechtian alienation effect to make the thematic ideas stand out, and this is carried through into the choreography, for example very effectively in presenting the 7 going on 8-year-olds, and then the changes in their movement style as they do a slide show through 15, 16, 17 and 18.
This was nice work which meant that the melodrama of a kind of OK Corral ending (quite appropriate for grown ups who had played cowboys and Indians with real airguns as children) did not become sentimental. It allowed us in the audience to be aware of tragedy in real life, without merely wallowing in terrible sadness. Director Stephen Pike was, like AbsolutelyAllybum’s teacher, considerately checking out that we are ‘alright’.