By Kathryn Tann
Blood Brothers, frequently seen in the West End in its more musical form, is a play about class division, friendship and superstition. Far from your average coming-of-age play, this Liverpool-based piece is witty, dark, and often deeply poignant.
With no program to browse I was given the chance when I sat down to jot down my feelings about the set. It felt a little underwhelming, almost second hand, and would have been very ordinary were it not for the narrator looming above centre stage, sat comfortably on a raised platform. Waiting for the play to begin under the unnerving gaze of its lofty narrator (Hebe Ellison) certainly made for an exciting opening.
At first, accents emerged tentatively and choral speech had a slight stumble, but as the scenes rolled on the actors warmed up and the audience soon sat comfortably in this increasing confidence. The deft handling of the stylised script soon drowned out my first impressions – this was not a lazy play. This was thoroughly rehearsed, carefully directed, and fully aware of its own important themes. The lighting choices were simple but perfectly executed and the costumes well chosen. It felt rounded, and overall had very few of those tell-tale signs of an opening night.
As the action found its rhythm it became clear that Sophie Crawley, playing Mrs Johnston, was very well suited to her role. Her intensifying interaction with Mrs Lyons (Olivia Ballantine-Smith) developed and she raked in – with her trusting, tragic character – much of the audience’s emotional investment.
The most poignant signposts in the play (the promise Johnston makes on the bible, Mrs Lyon’s fake prophecy, and the boys’ blood brother pact) should have had far more limelight. The action barely slowed down for them. Even a lighting change (often a red wash is chosen to mark these crucial details) would have drawn sufficient attention to such pivotal moments. This is a stylised play, and though I respect that a college production is often stronger when simplistic, some embracing of this non-naturalistic element to the piece would have gone a long way.
HBT did, however, embrace the poetry of the play. Not only were the monologues skilfully performed and rhymes used to their full (often comedic) potential, but the overall atmosphere which I associate with Blood Brothers was brilliantly maintained. Laughs were savoured, whilst those more unsettling elements, such as Mrs Lyon’s descent into paranoia, were kept earnest. The energy brought onto the stage by the children, notably Lou Webster (playing Linda), was infectious. One of my favourite moments was the first meeting of the three children together, staged off to the right of the main space, as it comically captured the light-hearted innocence of children at such an age.
The actors also did well to cope with the frequent advances along their timeline, sometimes ageing multiple years within the space of a single scene change. However, I would have liked to see Lloyd’s voice change more (I was expecting it to at least deepen a little), and Webster’s 18-year-old version of Linda felt a little too young. Generally costume did well to keep up, though Michael could have done with a little more variation in his clothes during the later scenes.
By biggest praise must go towards Kyle Kirkpatrick. His entrance as Mickey was instantly recognisable as that of a seven-year-old boy, with his first monologue (insisting that he wasn’t seven, he was ‘nearly eight’) winning us over to his cheek and innocence. Kirkpatrick demonstrated each advancement in age with a seeming effortlessness, and his character development came across as really, quite professional
Matt Lloyd’s wide eyes and awkward shuffling was brilliant to watch in contrast with Kirkpatrick’s Mickey, though it played a little too close to the edge of pantomime at moments. Nevertheless, the energy between the two, even as they morphed into adulthood, was flawless, and made for a dramatic ending which brought every audience member along with it. I felt the characters’ nerves showed through a little in the final moments of the play, but despite a faulty gun and hurried ending, HBT hit the nail on the head in terms of emotion. Once again, it was a bitter, drunken Mickey who stood out, so different from the boy we first saw and yet so authentic. From start to finish Kirkpatrick’s character, combined with Sophie Crawley’s Mrs Johnston, did absolute justice to the working-class tragedy which the writer Willy Russell strove to bring forward in this play.
This thematic truthfulness, along with HBT’s easy handling of light and dark throughout Blood Brothers was, for me, what made it so enjoyable to watch. They have boldly taken hold of a brilliant script and with it, created a truly worthwhile performance.
Photograph: Sophie Wright