Like half the western world, I am familiar with the musical version of Blood Brothers. What I did not realise is that Willy Russell originally wrote it as a straight play, with no music, for a Merseyside youth theatre group. It is the play that Lyndhurst Drama & Musical Society are offering, which gives the evening added interest because it raises the questions of how much the addition of music changes a play, and whether it is for the better. ‘Hugely’ is the answer to the first question (think Pygmalion and My Fair Lady), while the second is as irrelevant as comparing chalk with cheese; what can be said is that a straight play is much more concentrated without the distraction of waiting for the next song.
This is well illustrated by the play of Blood Brothers because it is quite short (less than two hours including the interval) but very intense. It is the story of Liverpool twins who are separated at birth, one brought up in poverty and one in luxury. We see them aged seven, fourteen and eighteen and then as adults (ignore the misleading timings in the programme), as their story unfolds to its tragic end.
There is a narrator who is actually more of a commentator: a sardonic and sinister, not to say threatening, figure. Phil Rainforth sends the requisite shivers up the spine. As the twins, Steve Davis and Jack Barnett give performances that are, appropriately, inseparable in their excellence. Asking someone of thirty-plus to play a seven-year-old is inviting derisive laughter, but within seconds they have convinced us that they are ‘nearly eight’. They convey the agonies of the teenage years well, and as they start to develop separate characters, they become clearly delineated. Eddie (Steve Davis) is both basically decent and so insensitive that he simply does not understand that his efforts to help his blood brother can only infuriate Mickey (Jack Barnett), who feels patronised and controlled.
As Mrs Lyons, Eddie’s adoptive mother, Ingrid Bond makes the different facets of the character – her yearning for a child, her ruthlessness and her neuroses – fit together in a logical and skilful performance. As the twins’ mother, Mrs Johnston, Hannah Marks virtually carries the first half and rises to the challenge, although a tendency to speak her lines too quickly creates some diction problems when added to the Northern accent. Emma Davis gives a touching performance as Linda, Mickey’s girl friend then wife.
The set is plain, stark even, but some clever lighting design makes it clear where the action is going on. The set was designed by Michele Arkle, who has also done a fine job as director. To have the two men move towards each other as the truth about them is finally revealed works very effectively. What follows is the weakest part of the play, shading into the sort of melodrama that can produce nervous titters from the audience, but it is a tribute to director and actors that I heard only one, quickly suppressed.
In the foyer is a display of contemporary photos and cuttings about Liverpool and the new town of Skelmersdale. Someone has put a lot of work into it and chosen skilfully; the images are the real-life versions of what is happening on the stage and add a valuable dimension to it. It is well worth looking at if you attend either of the remaining performances: 21 and 22 July at 7.45.