When Blood Brothers opened at the Hayes Theatre earlier this year, the critics agreed this was an outstanding production. Leading the incredibly talented cast was Helen Dallimore: her portrayal of Mrs Johnstone recently being rewarded with a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Female Actor in a Musical.
Dallimore says Blood Brothers was a huge undertaking for the Hayes: a show of this size in such a small theatre and with a very limited rehearsal period. After a sold out season in Sydney, the musical is now “moving away” and “startin’ all over again” at the new Alex Theatre in St Kilda. Dallimore is looking forward to performing the show in a theatre with literally five times as many seats as the Hayes!
“The smaller the theatre space, the more filmic your performance becomes. A small space it great for an audience but it’s a totally different animal compared to having more space to move in.”
I asked Dallimore how she will change her performance for a different sized theatre. She explained that in a large theatre you have to project your performance all the way to the very back row, while being in a small theatre everyone is very close and makes it very hard to escape – particularly from something with such a huge amount of emotional truth like Blood Brothers.
Dallimore is very excited about the upcoming season at the new Alex Theatre.
“It’s really important to have these medium sized venues,” she says. “It’s a tough ask to fill a large theatre and you can’t make money on a small theatre. This country really needs this.”
Dallimore will reprise her role as Mrs Johnstone, a character she feels is like a very close friend. She describes Mrs Johnstone as the eternal optimist – a woman who, despite all the challenges, refuses to be ground down by it all. Mrs Johnstone is entirely empathic and always puts her children first, always operating from a place of love. Dallimore says that’s what makes the ending so heart breaking – she had to make a sacrifice but is then faced with the cold, hard hand of fate.
So what about the narrator’s line in the opening moments of the show? Does this perhaps suggest Mrs Johnstone to be some sort of villain?
‘And did you never hear of a mother so cruel
That there’s a stone in place of her heart
Then bring her on, and judge for yourselves
How she came to play this part’
Dallimore doesn’t consider Mrs Johnstone to be any sort of villain and has always found these lines very interesting. She sees the Narrator as Mrs Johnstone’s conscience: he says the things she fears about herself. She feels she’s done a terrible thing and feels a huge sense of remorse.
At the risk of needing a spoiler alert for anyone who has not yet seen this show, Dallimore says the ending of Blood Brothers produced quite an incredible reaction from audiences. When “stuff goes down at the end” Dallimore was amazed at how many people literally gasped with horror and clearly were not expecting the ending. The Sydney season brought a whole new generation of theatre goers and a new audience to Blood Brothers. While Dallimore is aware of the impact of the final gut-wrenching song, the sound of the band tends to drown out the noise of the audience. However, during the song ‘Easy Terms’ it’s a different story. Dallimore can hear audience members sniffling and blowing their noses and acknowledges there is a certain comfort in these noises as she knows she’s done a good job. (Although she does hope it’s not simply because they’re sick!)
Despite the harrowing tale of the Johnstone twins, Blood Brothers has been a huge success, particularly in the UK. Dallimore puts this down to the old saying about theatre, “Make em laugh, make cry”. While Blood Brothers is a tragedy and is incredibly moving, it’s also very funny. She also feels the great story line really resonates with people. This is a story for everyday, struggling people.
So how does she manage playing such an intense character night after night? Dallimore admits it’s tougher these days: she’s a single mum to a four year old. Mrs Johnstone isn’t a technically difficult role so vocal rest isn’t quite so important, but admits it’s much harder to recover after shows when you’re a single mother as the days of sleeping in till lunchtime are well gone. However, she also feels there is a certain emotional rawness to her character that is actually aided by being a tired, single mum. Mrs Johnstone is worn out by life, so if Dallimore is feeling tired too, she just goes with that feeling and uses it to add to her character.
While it’s very normal for actors to play roles outside the breadth of their own experiences, being a single mum has certainly helped Dallimore to appreciate the challenges faced by Mrs Johnstone and her large family, although Dallimore can’t imagine how anyone could manage raising such a large family alone.
Dallimore is very excited about the Alex Theatre season and the world class cast she has the privilege of working with, including Michael Cormick, Bobby Fox and Josh Piterman. It’s worth seeing just for this cast. If you do happen to cry, sniff confidently in appreciation of her heart-wrenching portrayal and know your sniffles are encouraging!
Blood Brothers opens at the Alex Theatre in St Kilda on July 16th for a strictly limited season.
For more details http://www.bloodbrothersthemusical.com.au/
Photo credit: Kurt Sneddon