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On October 15th 2003, our GCSE drama class visited the Bristol Hippodrome to watch Willy Russell’s ‘Blood Brothers’. From what I had heard and read, Blood Brothers set out to be a fantastic contemporary show exploring a wide variety of emotions. I expected a sad yet funny dramatic piece; this I know would be classified as a fundamental paradox but from my knowledge of the show, this is what I was expecting.
I expected the show to be about brothers who got involved in something that ended in death.
I was nearly correct. The story is of twin brothers born to the poor and already mother of many, Mrs Johnstone. On hearing that she was expecting twins, Mrs Johnstone, who worked for the rich and infertile Mrs Lyons, was persuaded to give one of the children to her.
After they had sworn an agreement on the bible, Mrs Lyons told Mrs Johnstone that if the twins were ever to meet and find out that they were twins, they would both die together; this was meant to disturb the already superstitious Mrs Johnstone.
After giving one of the twins away, Mrs Johnstone lives with no contact with Edward (the twin that was given away) and brings the other, Mickey, up on a council estate in Liverpool for seven years, until one day Mickey befriends Edward and they swear to be ‘blood brothers’.
Despite Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons’ attempts to end the friendship, they continued to see each other going on until Edward is moved away by the paranoid Mrs Lyons. Mickey was hurt by this, but carried on life as best he could until he too was moved to the country by the council. One day by chance the brothers meet again, and continued the friendship where it left off.
However, as Mickey grows up and was meet life’s real problems, he soon found Edward to be childish and spoilt in his ways. He tells Edward that he didn’t want to see him again and they both go their seperate ways. Mickey was to meet more trouble after he was wrongly imprisoned for shooting a man that his brother Eddie in-fact shot. This was to be the end of Mickey as we knew him, and he spirals out of control on a cocktail of drugs for his depression. When released from prison, Mickey is told by the now insane Mrs Lyons, that Edward and his wife Linda are having an affair.
Mickey confronts Edward about this with a gun in hand. The police are called and they stand aiming at Mickey ready to shoot. When Mrs Johnstone finally reveals to them that they are twins, Mickey shouts, “Why didn’t you give me away?… I could have been him, I COULD HAVE BEEN HIM! ” On saying this he waves the gun at Edward. The police thought he was going to shoot and so they shoot Mickey, as Mickey fell he pulled the trigger thus killing Edward. They both lie dead as ‘Tell me it’s not true’ is sung by the grieving Mrs Johnstone. On entering the auditorium I noticed the stage used was a proscenium arch stage.
When waiting for the show to begin, my expectations began to rise on seeing the set. This was due to the detail and exactness of the set design, it made me think I was actually in a street. Suspended in front of the set was a gauze, a net like drop that allowed partial view of the set behind. The gauze was dimly lit with a light that projected a broken image called a gobo. Allowing the audience to see the set behind but through distorted vision, helped us to feel the morbid and tragic atmosphere slightly. The atmosphere within the auditorium was excited to say the least; the audience was of mixed ages from eleven to seventy years of age.
The show began with the orchestra playing the overture, and the set from behind the gauze being lit and revealed. The beginning of the show was re-enacted at the beginning. Two men walked on and lay down on a stretcher prop, other members of the cast walked on and covered the bodies with a blanket and were walked off. The gauze made this scene seem very dream like by distorting the image and view slightly. The stage was designed so either side of the stage was a few houses, this represented in parts, the two brother’s houses, and sometimes one neighbourhood. The set was used very effectively and was realistic.
As the show went on, parts were added or taken away from the set to show the time lapse of the show. Such as the back drop with twinkling lights for the city skyline, added more and more lights each scene. Also props such as telephones or different coloured doors were added. At the back of the stage, such things as a graphitized wall and a crumbling wall were flown in. For the interior of the Lyons’ residence, a fly down reveal was used and a settee was wheeled in on tracks that were put on the stage. The use of ‘fly in’ and ‘reveals’ allowed the show to keep its pace.
For another more simplistic scene’s such as the bus scene, the actors simply sat on chairs and bounced slightly to give the impression of a moving bus. For school scenes, desks were simply rushed in and the teacher mimed the writing on a blackboard. It was a simple yet effect use of a cyclorama backdrop. Lighting was also used very effectively, such as when the narrator sang songs such as ‘Shoes on the table’, the light turned very cold using blues and whites, but also there was an undercurrent of red which seemed to me as though it was signifying the devil or hell. It was used when the idea of superstition was brought up.
Also when the madwoman chant was played out to Mrs Lyons, she fell to the floor and the stage was red washed, I think this also signified her spiralling into her personal hell. Sound wise, the gunshots were probably the most memorable sound effects used in the show, they were extremely loud and cause the audience to jump. One of the most memorable scenes where lighting was concerned, had to be the Madwoman chant, were Mrs Lyons stumbled into centre stage and fell to the floor, the stage was red washed and signified her own personal hell. It was the abrupt change in lighting that impressed me also.
Song played a major part in the show, it helped us to feel the mood of the scene, such as the Shoes on the Table song was very powerful yet haunting. When the show was supposed to be tragic, songs like “Tell me it’s not true” created a successful ethos. Dance didn’t play as major of a role in the show as song did, but certain scenes were choreographed effectively such as the ‘Kids Game’ scene, in this scene the actors had to be acting out a game of ‘cowboys and Indians’ and they were shooting at each other, falling over and using the other actors to help them support them or balance on them etc.
The show featured many humorous parts, it was mostly used in the kids scenes. Humour was created by seeing grown actors play pre-pubescent characters, the contrast of the actors heights and builds allowed the audience to find humour in the actions or things they said. Humour was also used to break up the sadness of the preceding scene. My favourite scene had to be the ‘mad woman’ scene. This (as described before) was after Mrs Lyons tried to attack Mrs Johnstone with a knife and was called “crazy” by Mrs Johnstone. Mrs Lyons slowly stumbled to centre stage and looked helpless.
The stage was red washed and children’s voices were heard taunting Mrs Lyons with almost a skipping rope chant or game; it began, “High upon the hill, the mad woman lives, never eat the sweets she gives, just throw them away and give them to your dad, high upon the hill there’s a woman gone mad… ” Mrs Lyons fell to her knees screaming and trying to block out the sound. The lighting used was to try and create a hellish image, representing Mrs Lyons personal spiral into a madness created by her own superstition that her son would die if he found out the truth.
A weak scene for me was ‘Shoes upon the table’ scene, I think this was chiefly due to the narrators almost strangulated accent as he sang. It distorted his voice thus making the words that were being sung very hard to understand. My favourite actor or character in the show was Mickey played by Sean Jones. His portrayal of a child in the early scenes was extremely successful and realistic. However, I think he played to the audience a lot in the comedy sections making us think that he might not be comfortable playing such broadly comic roles.
One particularly strong scene for Mickey was when he was out of prison and hooked on the anti-depressants, when his wife wouldn’t give him his tablets he almost broke down and brought the show to a dramatic high point. One of my least favourite characters was the narrator played by Keith Burns. Burns’s strangled Liverpool accent was hard to comprehend in parts and distorted the words that seemed to be very important in telling the story due to his part… the narrator. The narrator was dressed in a dark and smart suit with a dark red shirt underneath.
This, I think, helped for him to be conveyed as the devil. All in all, the show was a huge success. The portrayal of children in scenes contrasted with the adult actors’ physique. Blood Brothers, is an extremely well written show of the real life issues that people deal with today and the realism of situations such as the redundancy issues were extremely realistic. However, the comedy and music helped bring a clean edge to a smoothly written modern classic musical… Blood Brothers.