Blood Brothers is one of Britain’s longest running musicals, playing on the West End for over 24 years. It takes an insightful director and a dedicated cast to tackle this play with music. Blood Brothers is not a light piece of theatre; it explores the themes of nature and nurture, peer pressure, superstition and family relationships in this ensemble musical play. Writer Willy Russell’s dramatic and haunting score add to his book, which leaves the cast physically and emotionally drained – and the audience is taken on the same journey.
Blood Brothers is a departure for Phoenix Theatre Company, as it is a drama of high tension and generational poverty, not the sort of show that audiences leave feeling uplifted and whistling the music. To director Craig Maloney’s credit, this show achieved what he set out to achieve- “…truly captured the essence and raw emotions that Willy Russell would expect.” He has indeed found strong leading players who deliver a very strong and convincing ensemble piece of theatre.
Maloney was supported by a strong production team. Musical direction by Kent Ross was complemented by an eight-piece band that played off stage. Lighting by Brenton Van Vliet was very effective and made use of domes and specialist effect to heighten the drama of the show. Van Vilet was also stage manager. In a small space like the Doncaster Playhouse, moving from scene to scene can be a challenge for technical crew and cast alike, but set designer (and leading lady) Anne Dewar had obviously given great thought to all of the intricacies and demands of the show and made excellent use of the stage. The use of projections on the back wall was also effective to enhance the mood of the drama. Front of house was ably managed by the Phoenix team and the large television which showed a montage of photographs from the production was a clever use of technology and utilisation of the newly-renovated foyer space.
Performances by the leading cast members were moving and showed dedication to the ethos of an ensemble cast piece as well as making each character defined and believable. Anne Dewar really owned the role of Mrs Johnstone. From the opening moments of the show to the closing seconds of her grief and disbelief at the events of the final scene, Dewar demonstrated a real understanding of the character. Vocally, she carried much of the show and was in fine form, ensuring that she carried the character seamlessly through the dramatic and musical elements of the script.
Will Atkinson and Matty Jakowenko give strong performances as the twins. Again, they seemed to transition between the vocal and acting requirements with ease. Jakowneko played Eddie with the reserve and formality of a conservative, upper middle-class English male, and his consistent English accent and vocal abilities were clearly evident in this role. Atkinson burst on to the stage as an energetic and totally believable eight year old; he made the lower class Mickey far more physical as a child and then contrasted his growing emotional problems with less movement as an adult – emotionally and physically retreating into his emotional angst. There was obviously a clear bond between the two performers. Kate Spruce as Linda was a delight, demonstrating her child-like qualities in the earlier scenes with the enforced maturity beyond her years that her situation required in her portrayal of the adult Linda. All three demonstrated a strong camaraderie that made the final scenes very powerful.
Craig Dewar as the narrator was effective in bringing together a multitude of roles to comment on the action. Mark Kearney’s Sammy was instantly recognisable as a ‘bad egg’. Kearney understood the demands of Sammy and importance of his pivotal part in the drama. Erika Turner created a very dark and suitably emotionally scarred Mrs Lyons, and was ably supported by John Leahy’s Mr Lyons. A small ensemble completed the characters.
Phoenix has created a strong cast who have obviously invested time and emotional energy in this production of Blood Brothers. If I were to be highly critical of this show I would mention the inconsistencies of the accents. It is important in this show particularly to get it right; some people did, some didn’t. I understood the opening of the show and what Craig was trying to achieve in his projections and montage. I wonder whether it spoiled the end; I guess that is a question for individual audience members to deliberate. Nevertheless, this is a fine interpretation of such a critically acclaimed show. On Saturday night, the Playhouse was not full and the cast deserved to have the support of a full house. I would encourage those who know and love this show and those who have never seen it before to go and see this show. It is not done often, but it makes you think.