— The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Blood Brothers. Photo by David Cooper.
Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is a ripping good yarn about class, friendship and fate in late 20th century Britain, although as a musical it’s pretty much bloodless. The Arts Club production, co-directed by Bob Frazer and Sara-Jean Hosie, showcases some of the strengths that have made this show a non-stop hit for over 20 years in the UK but it can’t paper over the script’s serious flaws.
Like Russell’s Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, Blood Brothers features a feisty working-class woman, Liverpudlian single mum Mrs. Johnstone (Terra C. MacLeod). Struggling to feed her seven kids, she finds herself giving birth again—to fraternal twins Eddie (Adam Charles) and Mickey (Shane Snow). Mrs. Lyons (Meghan Gardiner), the barren rich lady whose house Mrs. J cleans, desperately wants a child. So the two strike a deal. Mrs. Lyons will raise Eddie as her own and neither mother will ever let the boys know they are brothers. In fact, if the boys ever find out (cue Gothic piano chord), at that very moment they will die!
Russell’s class prejudices skew the story heavily in favour of working class heroine Mrs. Johnstone, whose good-humoured liberal child-rearing makes uptight Mrs. Lyons and her industrialist cipher husband seem profoundly one-dimensional.
Despite the best efforts of increasingly psycho Mrs. L to keep the boys apart, the rich kid and poor kid find each other (partly due to the Johnstones’ inexplicable change of fortune), become friends, vow blood brotherhood, and grow up—on the play’s long linear path over two decades—playing together, getting in trouble together, and even sharing a girlfriend (Lauren Bowler). But in Thatcherite Britain class will prove stronger than blood. And in case we don’t know what’s coming, Russell’s sinister narrator (the ever excellent John Mann), lurking about the stage in various guises, sings of the ills bound to come.
Fortunately, the songs come infrequently. Russell’s relentlessly nondescript and repetitious music mostly stops the more interesting action in its tracks. The show is most fun when the chorus of kids comes out to play. As in the Arts Club’s wonderful 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee last year, adult actors portray the kids with delightful abandon. It’s a hoot watching big Warren Kimmel, so constrained as Mr. Lyons, skip around Ted Roberts’ sprawling set as a goofy eight-year-old. Snow and especially Charles play the blood brothers throughout childhood and adolescence with sweet energy and compelling charm.
As a somewhat downbeat alternative to the usual theatrical Christmas fare, Blood Brothers should appeal to the little bit of humbug in us all.