Have you heard the story of the Johnstone Twins?

It’s a production rarely produced in Australia, but producer Enda Markey has taken this cherished UK favourite tale of an ill-fated pair of twins separated at birth and created a bold and intimate night at the theatre. The musical has a 32 year history as one of the UK’s most successful and long-running productions, with Australia having enjoyed previous professional productions in 1988 and 1994 featuring the likes of Chrissie Amphlett, Russell Crowe, Peter Cousins, Delia Hannah, David Soul and Stefan Dennis in the leading roles. (It was nice to see Dennis in the star-studded audience on opening night.)
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The first thing that grabbed me about this production was the publicity material. With sharp photography of four of industry favourites and a dark, teal-shaded, grungy backdrop, and Adrian Guerin’s bold and distressed logo design, this looked set to be a revitalised, modern take on the classic; and that it was.
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As the prologue played, and the performance progressed, it was evident that the typically synthesised sounds of this production had been replaced by a modern, more acoustic sounding band. Under the masterful direction of Kellie Dickerson, the band of four breathes new life into this production. It is largely refreshing and helps take away any sense of this production being dated.
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Similarly, Andrew Pole as director produces a vision of a more modernised piece through his direction of the set, costuming and lighting. There are small hints of past eras in the script and some of the costuming, but the piece is largely set in a timeless manner. He uses the small space well and has a wonderful cast to work with.
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The stars of this show are the twins, Mickey and Eddie, played by Bobby Fox and Josh Piterman respectively. The musical spans 21 years, and both men create endearing seven and fourteen year old characters. They genuinely portray innocence and naivety. As Mickey ages, he falls on hard times, finds himself imprisoned and struggles with depression. Fox does the heavy subject matter justice. In a most heartbreaking moment, he tells his wife Linda, that he takes the pills she fears he is addicted to so that he can be invisible – a crushing moment for her and the audience alike. Piterman brings warmth to the piece and develops Eddie into a strong and caring young gentleman with a seemingly easier life. His adoration for Linda is evident as he does what he can to help her and Mickey through tough times, ultimately leading them to adulterous territory.

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Blood Brothers Mickey and Eddie

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Michael Cormick is a menacing narrator. Cormick weaves through the action as he constantly reminds the audience of the traps of keeping a dark secret. He has a penchant for superstitions and has a certain charismatic nature about him. He also plays several cameo roles throughout the production which generally add some comedic relief.
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Helen Dallimore plays Mrs Johnstone, the single mother of eight who secretly gives up one of her twins to avoid the welfare taking her children. Dallimore sang boldly through a cold that she unfortunately couldn’t quite mask the whole night. She reminisces of days gone by when she looked and felt like Marilyn Monroe, and therein was my main issue with the character. She was simply too pretty; too beautiful. With gold ringlets framing her face and a modest, floral-patterned bright dress through the first act, I did not believe that this woman had become a run-down single mother of eight who was struggling to support her family. As her belongings are repossessed and she does her best to maintain work, I wanted to see her more rough around the edges. This would have also helped define her social class throughout the production.
Helen Dallimore pram
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As Mrs. Lyons, Bronwyn Mulcahy gave a very polite and measured performance. Desperate to have a child, she very convincingly manipulated Mrs Johnston into an agreement to raise one of the twins as her own. As the story progressed, the madness that usually takes hold of a psychologically damaged Mrs. Lyons was underplayed and she retained a more composed nature. When she attempts to kill Mrs. Johnstone in later scenes, and tells Mickey of Linda and Eddie’s growing affair, it didn’t seem the result of years of paranoia and guilt sending her into madness, rather a premeditated act of revenge; and to that end, her character wasn’t redeemed.
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Christy Sullivan played the tomboyish child Linda with spunk and matured into sympathetic yet burdened young adult yearning only to be loved. Jamie Kristian gave a suitably abrupt and immature performance as the child Sammy, growing into a temperamental delinquent who has many a run-in with the law.
Blood Brothers boys
Erin James and and Matt Edwards round out the cast as Donna Marie and Mr Lyons, with several other ensemble roles between them. James brings great expression to her roles, while Edwards is largely unsympathetic towards his onstage wife, which only adds to our understanding of why she would want so badly for a child to love.
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Sets and costumes were designed by Anna Gardiner. The set very cleverly utilised the smaller theatre space, and I applaud its functionality with outside house facades that open to reveal home interiors. The costuming of the show seemed to nod to eras passed, while seeming contemporary at the same time. The adult men all looked smart, and the adults playing children were all dressed in a way that helped convey their on-stage ages.
BloodBrothersfullcast
Perhaps an intentional choice, although I do feel it is an important plot point, I felt the production design lacked in its visual distinction between the classes. The main set element showed two concrete house exteriors. They were a little drab for my liking (perhaps introducing more of the teal grunge colour pallete that was used in the marketing may have helped here?), and while I can assume they were designed to be non-specific, I wanted to see more of an obvious distinction between Mrs Johnstone’s original lower class Liverpool dwellings, her progression to a commission home, and the Lyons’ city and countryside homes. Likewise with costumes, as previously mentioned regarding Mrs Johnston’s modest appearance, I would have liked more distinction between the two mothers’ wardrobes to help indicate their contrasting social class.
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Lighting was suitable throughout the production helping to create focal points within the story as well as helping to differentiate indoor and outdoor locations as well as day and night time. The sound was well balanced in the smaller Alex Theatre space, and my only complaint is the pre-recorded policemen in the final scene which seemed out of place in the otherwise completely live show.
Helen Dallimore

Gabrielle Rogers is also to be commended for her work as Dialect Coach. The intricate and distinct sounds of the Liverpudlian and PR accents have been mastered by this talented cast, allowing for smooth dialogue interchanges that were never jarring.

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For a more contemporary presentation of Blood Brothers, don’t miss this production as it plays for only three weeks until August 2nd in its Melbourne season. I didn’t have the emotional reaction to this production that I’ve had to previous incarnations of Blood Brothers (both locally and abroad), but it is still an impressive production, with a beautifully tragic story, told by some of the industry’s finest.

 

 

Blood Brothers is playing at The Alex Theatre, St Kilda until August 2nd.

For more information and tickets: http://www.bloodbrothersthemusical.com.au/

 Photo credit: Jeff Busby

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