Saturday 18 April 2009

Blood Brothers (or is the length of time a show runs for in inverse proportion to its qualify)

It's well known that the dross Andrew Lloyd Webber writes (or, more accurately, plagiarises) runs for years and years, despite any redeeming features; your author would like little more than to see the look on his face following nil points for this year's British Eurovision entry, which he has penned. On the other hand, Stephen Sondheim's work of genius Assassins closed after fewer than a hundred performances. Unjust is inadequate by way of description.

Something similar might be said of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, though, in fairness, it is a cut above Lloyd Webber. It tells the story of the Liverpudlian Johnstone brothers, or rather twins, who were born and died on the same days (that's not spoiling anything, though, since you learn that right at the start).

The show is currently in its 20th year at the Phoenix Theatre. I wonder if I'm alone in finding this prospect slightly depressing. One of the joys of theatre is variety. During the Fringe, the venue I'm involved with runs 10 to 15 productions. It would be, frankly, beyond dull if we were stuck with the same show for all three weeks. I don't know how the staff have stood it for twenty years. I found myself feeling terribly sorry for the building: somehow it just seems wrong (as one exits there are posters of the shows from its history, but it seems history has ended).

Before I get on to critiquing the show, a word about the programme. To call it a programme wouldn't be correct, though. It is a glossy brochure celebrating the history of the show, it tells me nothing about the actors or musicians we saw, there is only an insert giving there names. This is just plain wrong. I want a memento of the performance I have seen, not least to aid me in writing a review (which is why none of the cast of musicians are credited, despite solid performances).

So what of the show itself? Well, it tells the story of Mickey and Eddie, separated at birth. One grows up in poverty, the other wanting for nothing. Both mothers forbid their sons from seeing each other, but in the end tragedy ensues.

Now, in and of itself, this is a promising premise. Unfortunately, there are numerous problems with the execution. Russell is responsible for the lyrics, book and music and so takes almost all the blame. The music is okay, though pretty repetitive and nothing especially remarkable. The book and lyrics provide the more critical failings. The prose, especially of the narration, is horribly banal in its predictability (cringeworthily so in some of the rhymes). The lyrics are not much better: one wonders if Russell had a bet going as to how many times he could work Marilyn Monroe into it (if you used this as the cue for a drinking game, you would be well and truly under the table by the interval).

Another significant failing concerns the plot itself. Despite efforts to keep them apart, the twins become friends and swear blood brotherhood (with music a pale shadow of its equivalent in Don Carlos). Much of the action, especially in act one, takes place when Mickey and Eddie are children. They are portrayed by the same actors throughout. In fairness, they do this pretty well (though they are caricatured children); unfortunately, they don't seem quite as convincing as adults. However, the current cast is pretty uniformly solid: there are no dreadful voices or unclear diction. When Mickey turns eighteen, he loses his job and suddenly forsakes Eddie. It isn't really convincing why. There then follows a chain of equally unconvincing events that lead to their deaths. These should be profoundly distressing, and doubtless Russell had chosen to inform us of them at the start to heighten the inevitability of the tragedy. This might be the case if the relationships and actions felt more real. Sadly, somehow, at the end I just didn't care all that much. I didn't feel invested in either of the twins or their relationship, or their relationships with mutual friend Linda. This is largely because almost all the relationships and characters were completely one dimensional. If Russell had done his job right, I would have been devastated.

We were clearly in a minority, and many people seemed to have loved it (and must have for it to have run twenty years). It wasn't dire in the manner of, say, Covent Garden's recent Beggar's Opera and it was reasonably watchable (though I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about other things, fairly productively as it turns out).

If you're looking for a night of fine musical theatre in London, however, my advice is to head a little further down the Charing Cross Road towards Trafalgar Square and catch A Little Night Music at the Garrick (we saw this at Christmas at the Menier Chocolate Factory and it is quite simply in another, and altogether superior, league).

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