It has been 20 years since I last saw a professional production of Blood Brothers.   With the wonderful Delia Hannah as Mrs Johnstone and, strangely, David ‘Hutch’ Soul as The Narrator, it was a true ensemble piece and one my most moving and memorable theatrical experiences.  So I looked forward with pleasure to Manilla Street Productions’ opening night.

Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers started life as a theatre-in-education play.  Russell added the music in 1983 and that is what the piece essentially remains – a play with songs.  As a musical it breaks all the rules.  The plot is implausible and at times downright silly, the songs are often trite and repetitive and we even know how it finishes from the very opening lines.  So why has it won a place in the hearts of theatre-goers for over thirty years?  Because Blood Brothers has at its heart the perennial story of love and loss.  We, as an audience, need to invest in the characters, feel their struggle and despair, their joy and hope and, ultimately, their tragedy. 

Sadly, while this production does have some wonderful moments, ultimately it fails to deliver and I feel this is largely the fault of the direction.

Chris Parker has obviously worked hard with his actors to achieve mostly polished and at times exceptional performances.  Generally the action flows well and he makes good use of the playing area.  However he has made some very strange directional choices which often jar the audience out of the moment.  This seems to happen most often in the use of the ensemble.

But it is his staging of the final scene that really left me, and others, bewildered.  Inexplicably, at the absolute climax of the play, the very moment when our hearts ache for these characters we have come to love, Mr Parker has chosen to have the ensemble wander on, pulling focus and totally destroying the dramatic tension the lead actors have worked so hard to achieve.  Then, to make things worse, he positions Ms Plumley facing upstage for most of her heart-breaking rendition of “Tell Me It’s Not True”.  We, the audience, are cut adrift, denied our opportunity to share her grief and anguish.  Hopefully this staging can be righted.  It spoils what should have been a very good production with some excellent performances.

Chelsea Plumley gives a well measured, sympathetic performance in the pivotal role of Mrs Johnstone.  She handles the humour with a wry cynicism and maintains credibility in the dramatic scenes.  Mrs Johnstone has all the big numbers in the show and, with her strong, expressive voice, Ms Plumley is more than equal to the task.

For me, the stand-out performances come from the three young people whose story is at the heart of Blood Brothers. Gareth Keegan as Mickey and Matthew Bradford as Eddie are so physically dissimilar that, at first, it’s hard to make the leap necessary to believe that they are twins.  But with two fine performances and constant reinforcement by the script, we soon forget this minor quibble and become drawn into this unlikely relationship.  Mr Keegan moves with ease from the cheeky ragamuffin seven year old to the bitter disillusioned young husband.  Mr Bradford is equally impressive.  Eddie is funny and endearing as a child, and gentle and charming as an adult.  His rendition of “I’m Not Saying a Word” displays his beautiful tenor voice and is poignant and moving.  Lisa-Marie Parker gives great substance to the character of Linda.  She never misses a laugh in her earlier scenes and achieves real pathos as the play progresses.

I enjoyed Simon Wilton as the Narrator, although I’m sure not everyone will agree with me.  He is by turns teasing, sinister, sarcastic and strangely camp.  His cameos as the milkman, the doctor and the teachers are varied and funny.

Glenda Linscott tackles the very difficult role of Mrs Lyons.  When played correctly, the audience should feel pity towards this sad, desperate woman as she sinks into depression and paranoia.  Ms. Linscott fails to achieve this delicate balance and the performance tips into melodrama.  She is also vocally weak.

In the minor roles Glaston Toft stands out as Mickey’s incorrigible older brother, Sammy, and Peter Hardy is solid in the underwritten role of Mr. Lyons.   Josh Ellwood, Martin Lane and Hilary Watts complete the ensemble and play a multitude of characters, most of which are well handled although they occasionally fall victim to some strange direction and choreography.

Musical direction is in the safe hands of Andrew Patterson.  Blood Brothers is very uneven musically and not all cast members get the opportunity to show their capabilities.  Mr Patterson has worked hard to ensure that the vocals are consistently well presented. Mr Patterson also leads the tight three piece band of keyboard, bass and guitar.  Cleverly positioned along the side wall of the playing space, they are visible without being obtrusive.  The overall sound has an 80’s feel consistent with the era in which the show was written.

 There is little opportunity for choreography in this show but I found Stephen Agisialou’s movement a bit messy and random. 

Adam (Gus) Powers and Deirdre Kennedy are in charge of design.  Their minimalist set, consisting of a free standing doorway, three overhead wires and a hanging lamp, works very well, with small set pieces moving easily on and off.  A high wall on the prompt side of the stage is a clever addition, giving an extra option for entrances and exits.  The show is fully costumed with the fashions changing with the period. Most appear to be authentic but the overall look lacks cohesion and I wonder if the pared back approach which works so well on the set might have served the production better.

Scott Allan’s lighting design is subtle and atmospheric, enhancing the many scenes without overpowering.

Marcello Lo Ricco’s sound design is a little overdone.  This is a small show in a small space and the sound quality should be governed by this.  The ramped up volume often made me feel I was being shouted at, and the constant use of reverb lent a sameness to some of the songs.

Despite my reservations about some aspects of this production, there is much to enjoy, particularly in the performances.  I urge you to see it and judge for yourself.

Photos: Chris Parker