As part of my reviewing of all things cultural in the North East, I also try and take in new, up & coming productions. I am fortunate to have 2 daughters who both attend the Education Village in Darlington, the area’s premier Academy specialising in performing arts and recently the Year 10 Drama students staged their version of Willy Russel’s Blood Brothers, a return to the original production way before the musical phenomenon and which was first enacted in a very impromptu style where the focus was on the story and the acting, shorn of the trappings of elaborate sets and full orchestration.
The premise, as most people know, is set around the nature vs nurture argument as we watch two twin brothers grow up in vastly differing surroundings only for their lives to keep colliding while they are completely unaware of their fraternal connections.
This production was performed as the original was intended; a bare stage, minimal set, props and costumes, and the students had to embrace the complexities of life far different from their own yet still retain the child-like qualities which makes the two main characters so endearing to the audience.
Right from the start it was clear that the whole ensemble had worked extremely hard to overcome their own inhibitions & challenges – this was the first time they had performed to a paying audience, the first time they had delivered the whole play without any teacher interaction and, as was most noticeable at the end, the first time they had felt that collective achievement which will live with them through the rest of their school lives and beyond. Adopting accents, memorising lengthy monologues, portraying a gamut of emotions are stock skills in the trained theatre and all the students embraced these expectations with passion and desire.
Lest we forget, this was not a group of budding, parent-driven thespians who had been coached and cajoled into attending stage school from the earliest of ages; many of the cast had taken drama as an option to explore a curiosity rather than to fulfill a lifelong dream of ‘treading the boards’.
Opening with Mrs Johnstone, the boys’ mother (played by Becca Bramfitt with a wonderful scouse accent, wistful smile and almost heartbreaking optimism), lamenting the days gone by when her husband likened her to Marilyn Monroe the scene was set and we were instantly transported to an overrun family home in Liverpool where Mrs J is again ‘in the family way’.
Mrs Johnstone, who works as a cleaner, confides in her employer, Mrs Lyons (Miss Jackson) and it is through this relationship that the decision to ‘trade’ one of her new born twins is agreed. Mr Lyons (played with subtle indifference and almost abstract unawareness by Jack Pritchart) seems completely non-plussed by the sudden arrival of ‘his’ son but all the while Mrs Lyons fears that the truth will out and so warns Mrs J that should the separated twins learn of their estranged sibling then disaster will strike.
The story of the two boys, Micky & Eddie, follows them as they grow from babes in arms, through childhood, adolescence and into early adulthood – this in itself presents quite a challenge when the cast are all of the same age (and heavily skewed to more girls than boys) yet the annotated script, clever direction and passionate delivery made it very easy to recognise the different stages in the boys’ lives. Rachel Locket and Amy Hart played the young Mickey and Eddie brilliantly and gave the youngsters a wonderful mix of street edge coupled with barely-hidden vulnerability. As they recognise something similar in each other but never knowing what or why, the boys make a pact to stay ‘brothers’ for ever – Blood Brothers.
As the boys grow up Mrs Lyons realises the only way she can seek some peace & release is to move house, taking up the chance to leave Liverpool and forge a new start in the country. By this time the boys have become good friends, too good for Mrs Lyons’ liking while Mrs Johnstone is happy to see her ‘son’ grow up, albeit from a distance not daring to confess the truth.
This version of the story is abridged from the award winning musical version so to keep the pace fresh and still ensure transitions are meaningful a narrator was engaged – voiced by Vicky Smith. This was a great way to maintain the intensity of each scene and not allow the focus to wander.
As fate would have it, the Johnstones too receive an opportunity too good to refuse and very soon are following the Lyons’ out into the country. Here the boys reunite and continue their friendship, this time played with perfect teen angst by Leia Cordy and Elizabeth Friends. By now the boys have much more about them, their personalities are more noticeable, as are their differences, but Leia and Elizabeth ensured that there was still a fundamental, but unsaid, link between the two. The boys even share an attraction for the same girl, Linda, played by Katy Smith-Burns and Tamara Adams, while their friend, Sammy (Becca Smith) struggles to understand why these two seemingly disparate souls are intrinsically linked. Katy, Tamara and Becca S gave the scenes real depth & created the sense that whilst the focus was on the juxtaposition between the two boys, there were others who had been innocently sucked into this maelstrom.
As we hurtled towards the climax of the show, the intensity of the performance grew and grew, in no small part due to the collective immersion that the whole cast had in their characters. This made the final scene as heartbreaking as any other production of Blood Brothers. It is well recognised that the sign of a great show is how it moves the audience into believing what they are watching – the closing moments prompted more than a few wet eyes in the auditorium and that was worth as much as the rapturous applause after the final fade to black.
This was a great delivery given by a cast who obviously enjoyed the whole process from casting and rehersal to performance. Whether any of them persue further options in the performing arts only time will tell, but for now they have the memory of being a part of a wonderful performance and that will last for ever.