There is an awful lot of speculation out there about the bonds between twins. Whether it's about finishing each others' sentences or remotely sensing trouble in each other's lives, twins arouse a lot of speculation about whether certain behaviours are innate or acquired. Such speculations, I suspect, were part of the inspiration for Blood Brothers, now playing at The Q in Queanbeyan.
The story just about belongs to Mrs Johnstone, a mother who separates her twin sons shortly after birth for lack of funds to raise both. The luckier of the two is chosen by her barren employer, Mrs Lyons, whose house she cleans. The convenient arrangement is of course doomed, and the mothers take pains to keep their respective twin from meeting his brother. Motherly forbiddance notwithstanding, the twins find each other and become firm friends, mingling their blood in the traditional childhood blood brother ritual. The mothers separate their sons, but loyalty, or perhaps chance, or maybe the curse alluded to by the narrator, repeatedly bring the brothers back together as they grow into adulthood.
Blood Brothers is a rather psycho exploration of the old nature versus nurture debate. But at the same time, it's a very human story. Remarkably human, actually, for a musical. There isn't a hint of superficiality, and astonishingly, even the intensity of its melodrama doesn't dampen the pathos of its narrative. While it does behave like a musical at the beginning by skimming the surface of its exposition, right at the point where most musicals turn away from their more interesting possibilities, Blood Brothers takes an unexpected turn and actually delves into the inner lives of its characters.
In Queanbeyan, these characters are being expertly portrayed by one of the most talented and cohesive casts I've ever seen on stage in the region. Christine Forbes gives an absolutely impeccable performance as the beleaguered Mrs Johnstone. Her portrayal is thoroughly engaging and elicits every sympathy, and her vocal performance is equally stunning. Somewhat in her shadow, brothers Mickey Johnstone and Edward Lyons are played by Ben Kindon and Peter Ricardo respectively. These roles, in which the brothers are portrayed at ages eight, sixteen and somewhere shortly before twenty (perhaps?) are two of the most challenging imaginable, but are handled with grace and an admirable presence.
The oddity is the presence of the narrator. The only member of the cast with a wandering accent, the role is otherwise well-executed by Roy Hukari, but I question why writer Willy Russell chose to include a narrator at all. His speeches and songs are laboured and rather naff; and since Mrs Johnstone also narrates, he seems to be more of a distraction than a driving force in the story.
His presence, however, is not enough to significantly dampen my enthusiasm for this rather odd musical. The story is shocking at times, light-hearted and even funny at others, and it boasts a strong humanity throughout. Stephen Pike has done an excellent job of uniting its technical, musical, choreographic and dramatic elements, and the most applaudable aspect of the production is that it stands, as a whole, firmly on its story.
Whether the course of the blood brothers' very different lives are the results of a curse or class is a matter for speculation. What is not speculative, though, is that what audiences are likely to encounter at The Q while they're being played there is a rather brutal story with a very warm heart. It is refreshing to see this stage being used for more substantial works than the light and fluffy nothing-musicals it is more often subjected to, and I hope Stephen Pike has a few more of these up his sleeve.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Willy Russell
Director Stephen Pike
Venue: 'The Q' – Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre | 253 Crawford Street, Queanbeyan
Dates: 6 – 23 July 2011
Tickets: $35.00 – $49.00