Directed by Chris Edmund with musical direction from David King, Blood Brothers is a powerful production to open the WAAPA musical theatre student’s year. It is a moving, well directed performance that tugs at the heartstrings.
Written by Willy Russell (of Educating Rita fame), it tells the story of the Johnstone twins. Separated at birth, Mickey Johnstone grows up in a large working class family whilst Eddie Lyons grows up in the middle class. The musical deals with their relationships with each other, with their mothers and with Linda, the girl they both love.
The key character is Mrs Johnstone, mother of Mickey and Eddie, and she is the central pin that all the characters revolve around and return to. Gretel Scarlett portrays her as a feisty yet browbeaten woman fighting to survive in Liverpool during the 1950s - 1980s. Scarlett is impressive in the role, singing with emotion and power. Her final, tragic song as she holds both her boys brought tears to my eyes. Unfortunately, the sound mixing let her down and her powerful songs were too loud and hard to listen to.
Timothy Monley, dressed simply and elegantly in a black suit, played the role of Narrator with just the right touch of menace. His ominous presence appeared behind the scenes and watched the action. His powerful voice was ably suited to his recurring rock song and he moved the story forward to its eventual unfortunate ending.
Benjamin Giraud and Andrew Baker as Mickey and Eddie respectively excelled in the later part of the show as they portrayed awkward teens and young adults. The portrayal of the boys as 7 and 8 year olds was not so impressive, as it appeared that they were conscious of playing a role, rather than being the role.
Other main roles included Mr and Mrs Lyons (David Burrows and Kirsten Hobbs in fine performances), Mickey’s brother Sammy (a scarily out of control Daniel Hamill) and Kate Walder as Linda. Walder portrayed her working class character with flair, and had some moving scenes with both Giraud and Baker.
The rest of the ensemble was a bit removed from the production, often appearing dressed in black or behind black gauze with the band. I felt that they weren’t working together in the ensemble songs, with a lack of blend between performers.
The highly detailed set by Iona McAuley was marvelous to look at. McAuley made use of both sides of the stage, leaving a wide open stage for scenes. To the left was the outside of the Johnstone house. Trash, peeling paint and exposed brick work created a wonderful visual contrast to the inside of the Lyons house. Dark green elegant wallpaper, framed pictures and a dark wood bookcase all screamed money.
The lighting design (by Gareth Simmonds) was a little awkward, and made too much use of the (shaky) follow spot for my liking. A few more runs and better call timing from the stage manager and lighting board operator may alleviate some of the issues I saw.
The biggest fault I found was with the sound. Firstly, the entire cast was miked, which in the venue felt unnecessary. But it was more the level and mix of the sound that I found frustrating and distracting. From my seat in E row I couldn’t hear the performers’ natural voices at all; instead everything came loudly out of one central speaker located above the proscenium arch. This created a fragmented and disembodied effect that removed some of the power of the performance.
One of the problems I have with Blood Brothers is its repetitiveness. The opening number (NAME) sung by Scarlett is repeated in short and long forms, often with different words, multiple times during the performance. By interval, I could sing along with her.
The nine piece band whilst supporting the cast well could be a little bit tighter and again, better mixed sound wise. Even with microphones, I sometimes struggled to hear the singing over the band.
But despite the few weaknesses and sound issues, this production is definitely worth seeing because the last ten minutes is so powerful it will take your breath away. The audience knows what is going to happen, but the final scene is so jam packed with emotion and heartbreak I heard gasps from around the room. It is not a happy ending, so bring your tissues. Overall, a compelling musical from these third year students.
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts presents
By Willy Russell
Venue: The Geoff Gibbs Theatre
Dates: 14 – 20 March
Times: Fri 14 - Thurs 20 March, 7.30pm; Saturday 15 March, 2.30pm
Price: $35 Full, $29 Friends/Concession
Bookings: 9370 6636