Left – Chelsea Plumley. Photo – Chris Parker
In the early 1980s British playwright Willy Russell (best known for Educating Rita) wrote Blood Brothers. First produced as a school play, later adapted into a musical, the show eventually found its way to London's West End. Russell not only wrote the book, but also the music and lyrics. The show hit a chord with audiences and eventually ran for more than 24 years, becoming the third longest running musical in West End history.
Based loosely on a novella by Alexander Dumas, the contemporary story is set between the early 60s and the 80s, and follows the lives of twin boys who are separated soon after birth. One twin grows up on a council estate with his natural mother, eventually turning to crime, while the other leads a more priviledged life with a wealthier family.
The boys' lives continually intersect, with them becoming childhood best friends or 'blood brothers', although the truth about their birth and separation is never told to them.
However, after they both fall for the same girl, fate takes the upper hand – with tragic consequences.
Russell's poetic script and musical ability come together with great effect in Blood Brothers. Some of his ballads, such as Easy Terms and Tell Me its not True, have a beautiful, long-lasting haunting quality. One wonders why he has not produced more theatrical works in this vein.
His story unfolds against the backdrop of the British class system, culminating amidst the rise of unemployment in the 70s and 80s. He knows how to capture the voice of the working class, with the ability to bring a lot of humour into the story.
As Mrs Johnstone, a mother forced to give up one of her children, Chelsea Plumley is a strong and powerful force. It is wonderful being able to see her in a more dramatic role, although there are moments when the role and performance seemed to over-shadow some of the others in the cast.
Gareth Keegan as Mickey, and Matthew Bradford as Eddie, the son who is adopted out, are both good performers. They are required to play their characters as 7 year olds, then 14 year olds, then young men. Keegan especially brought great sentitivity to his final, more dramatic scenes.
Adding weight to the cast are Glaston Toft as older brother Sammy, Lisa-Marie Parker as the girlfriend Linda, and Glenda Linscott as Mrs Lyons, a woman desperate to have a child at any cost and who instigates the ill-fated proceedings.
Russell uses the character of a Narrator to comment on and lead us through the story. Played here by Simon Wilton, the character in this production is probably the least successful, with too many changes in personality to have the impact that it could have. The scenes where the Narrator shows a more serious and sinister side are far more effective.
Chris Parker's direction keeps the action moving and the staging works well within a largely bare space. The lighting/sound design is used effectively and a trio of musicians complement the performers on stage.
While this production may not work on every level, it is well worth re-visiting Willy Russell's Blood Brothers – a powerful indictment of the division of the social classes and the consequences of some of our choices.
Manilla Street Productions presents
by Willy Russell
Director Chris Parker
Venue: The Chapel, Chapel Off Chapel
Dates: March 19 – April 6, 2014
Tickets: $40 – $49
Bookings: 1300 182183 | www.chapeloffchapel.com.au