Review of “Blood Brothers”
“Blood Brothers” is a musical that explores divides in society caused by class. It also shows that children and their friendships are able to overlook class divides – another key theme in the play is friendship. There are also themes of superstition, which are repeated as motifs throughout the piece. The stage at the Name of Theatre Removed is raked, which means that the set had to be adapted to fit the slope of the stage.
The sides of the stage were filled with scenery resembling terraced houses on both sides, with doors and archways that were used by the actors as entrances and a balcony which allows the use of levels (the characters who occupied the balconies were frequently in a position of power over the characters on the main stage). During the first half of the performance, the backdrop was a cityscape filled with industrial buildings, which is painted in sombre colours, which reflected Mrs Johnstone’s despair and poverty.
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However, during the second half, the backdrop is painted with a blue sky, showing Mrs Johnstone’s optimism in the family’s new home. The audience initially thought that the backdrop reflected the mood of the piece, as the first half began with a very dark tone and the second half began as a very upbeat piece, however, the tones changed during the performance, meaning that the backdrop contrasted the mood of the piece. It also reflected the mood of unseen characters – the audience presumes that there are people beyond the cast shown who were moved at the same time as the Johnstone family.
The backdrop could reflect their general attitude – during the first half, Mickey’s childhood happiness is a contrast to the tension felt by the general working class population of Liverpool, whereas in the second half, his turmoil is not felt by the society as a whole. Although the set was largely static, elements of scenery are moved in and out of the stage to focus the audience’s attention and to allow the audience to understand the location of a scene. For example, during Mrs Johnstone’s job cleaning for the Lyons family, a dining table is pushed on stage, which shows that the scenes take place inside a rich house.
This also serves to show the class divide between Mrs Lyons and Mrs Johnstone, as scenes inside the Johnstone household are not marked by additional scenery (hinting that the Johnstone family own very little), with the exception of the scene in which Mrs Lyons attempts to murder Mrs Johnstone. The table is also significant in that it allows for the superstitious themes of the play to show on stage – through the placing of new shoes on the table, which is referenced throughout the play in the song “The Devil’s Got Your Number”. Sound is an important part of the performance, as the play is a musical.
During the songs, the characters speak directly to the audience and much of the narration is delivered to music. The music often allows the characters to reveal their true emotions to the audience, even if the other characters remain oblivious. For example, in the song “I’m Not Saying A Word”, the character of Eddie is shown to be secretly in love with Linda, although she does not seem to acknowledge that he is reaching out to her. Sound effects are used in addition to the music in order to communicate the story and to show the motifs of the performance.
The most prominent sound effects occur during the robbery scene and during the deaths of Mickey and Eddie, which are two of the most tense scenes of the play. Gunshot sound effects are used within both scenes, which accentuate the violence of the second half of the performance. Guns are referenced throughout the play, for example, during the first half, the ensemble and the actors playing Mickey, Linda and Sammy depict a group of children playing games like “Cowboys and Indians”, which involve guns as a relatively positive thing.
The portrayal of guns as toys serves to desensitise the audience to the danger which the characters later face involving guns, as well as foreshadowing the end of the play. The lighting in Blood Brothers generally reflects the tone of the scene – during the narrator’s speeches, the lighting tends to be darker with red light, as the narrator’s lines are delivered in a sinister way, usually foreshadowing the dark scenes that are to come.
The lighting helps to show the narrator’s portrayal as fate – a being from English mythology, which controls what happens within people’s lives. During more upbeat scenes, the lighting tends to be white or tinted yellow, to represent sunlight and the happiness that the actors are portraying. During the monologue which the actor playing Mickey delivers (“Our Sammy”), most of the stage is in blackout, with a spotlight on Mickey. This narrows the audience’s field of vision and ensures that all the focus is on Mickey.
It also reflects the isolation that Mickey feels as a child – he feels inferior to his older siblings, as he is only seven years old and his mother is protective of him as he is the youngest. This is also shown through his jealousy over the privileges that Sammy (aged 10) has compared to him, which is shown through the text of the monologue. Throughout the play, the same actors played the characters at various stages of their life – from the age of seven to young adulthood (in the cases of Mickey, Linda and Eddie).
This is effective because it allows for a more consistent character than if a character was played by a variety of actors and the use of adult actors allows the characters to be more realistic and meaningful to the audience, as younger actors generally have less experience. The use of adult actors playing very young children allows for added comedic value – when the actor playing Mickey appeared on stage for the first time in the performance, the audience laughed, as he was clearly not a child, but an actor playing a comically exaggerated child character.
This added to the upbeat humour of the first half of the play, while allowing the second half of the play to remain gritty and dark, as the actors are capable of playing a range of tones. There is an ensemble in the cast, which serves as both a chorus and minor characters – for example, the actor playing the bus conductor was also in the ensemble for much of the performance. This meant that the cast was minimised, which is an advantage because the play is on tour, so it was more practical to have fewer actors – meaning that makeup calls and such would be shorter.
Some actors played more than one character, communicated with different costumes and mannerisms. For example, the actress who plays Donna-Marie (Mickey’s older sister, who is a minor character seen playing with Sammy during the first half of the play) also plays Miss Jones (a young woman who loses her job at roughly the same time as Mickey, as in the song “Take a Letter, Miss Jones”). When the actress is playing Donna-Marie, she moves in a gangly, childlike manner, with a bright costume, consisting of a green, long sleeved jumper and a red tartan skirt and her hair is arranged in bunches.
When portraying Miss Jones, she wears a grey suit and glasses, with her hair pulled back. The costume that she wears while portraying Donna-Marie is very bright, which shows that Donna-Marie is a playful, happy character. This contrasts with the sombre character of Miss Jones, whose dull suit shows that she has been worn down by the drudgery of her job, as well as her misery at losing her job. I also note that the ensemble during “Take a Letter, Miss Jones” were dressed in grey suits as well, showing that unemployment was affecting a lot of people.
Much of the play focuses on how people of different classes are treated differently by authority figures. For example, in the first act of the play, Mrs Johnstone is perceived as poor and powerless – which shows in the way the milkman treats her when she cannot afford to pay her delivery and the constant threat of having some of her children taken into care by the Welfare. However, after she is rehoused by the council, the milkman appears to forgive her for not paying and the judge lets Sammy off after burning his school down, as the family is perceived as being richer due to where they live.
Class divide is also shown in the way that the police officer confronts their parents when Eddie and Mickey break a window while playing. The character of Mickey develops a lot through the story. He is portrayed with a Liverpudlian accent with various grammatical flaws, showing that he is not well educated, as well as reflecting the character’s scruffy nature, along with a costume of shorts, a bright green vest and a shirt which are too big and worn out, reflecting the second-hand nature of his clothes and therefore his poverty.
He is shown to have very few worries as a child but during his years at school, he begins acting out, resulting in exclusion from school. This is a possible foreshadowing of his time in jail in the future. As the character reaches adolescence, he develops feelings for Linda, which the actor shows through his awkwardness around her and aggression when her name is mentioned. After losing his job, he feels resentful towards people who are better off him, including Eddie, whom he lashes out at after Eddie’s return from university.
The actor showed his anger and “worn out” feelings using a huskier version of the voice that was used for teenaged Mickey, which shows that the character is desperate and a shadow of himself. His costume changes to work clothes in muted blue colours, showing lack of enjoyment. However, one thing that does not change through his life is his inability to stand up against Sammy, as shown when he is persuaded into the robbery. After his arrest, the character becomes even more depressed and angry, shown by the actor through his slowed movements, stooping posture and an even huskier voice.
The hunching posture shows that he has been beaten into submission by society and has given up, while the voice accentuates his tiredness. Mrs Johnstone is Mickey’s mother. She is shown to be superstitious as well as motherly – Mrs Lyons manipulates her superstition for her own good, as she swears on a bible to seal the deal between them. This possibly hints that she is religious, as she is wary of making the deal in God’s name. Her religion may also be shown through the number of children that she has – some strict religions oppose contraception or encourage believers to have many children in order to please God.
The actress effectively shows her desperation at having twins through her sudden quietness after learning that she is having more than one other baby, as well as a stoop similar to that of Mickey in later scenes. However, the actress portrays her as happy despite her circumstances and often laughed affectionately when her character’s offspring were in trouble. She is, however, portrayed as cold when speaking to Eddie, which shows that she regrets giving him away, even though he has a better life than she could provide.
Mrs Johnstone’s life was never in her control and was largely influenced by other characters (the narrator often appears to force Mrs Johnstone through her life). For example, it is not her choice to give Eddie up, but Mrs Lyons, who is educated and manipulative forced her into it through playing on her conscience. This reflects the theme of class as power, as well as showing how powerless women were at the time. Overall, I enjoyed the play, especially the casting choices.