Blood Brothers @ The Hayes

Helen Dallimore as Mrs Johnstone
Helen Dallimore as Mrs Johnstone in the current revival of BLOOD BROTHERS

It’s doubtful that you will be able to score a ticket to BLOOD BROTHERS playing at the Hayes Theatre at the moment. Why? Because Sydney theatregoers recognize a good thing when they see it … and see it … and see it. I’ve gone twice and so have my friends. Some have managed to scrounge a third ticket from somewhere. What’s so good about this production? Nothing in particular. Just … the cast, the music, the band, the lighting, the audio mixing, the set, the costumes and the rousing applause of a thoroughly satisfied audience.

Mrs Johnstone (to be) is taken dancing by a fancy man whose chat line includes how much she looks like Marilyn Monroe. Marriage and children ensue and the dancing dwindles until Mr Johnstone scarpers with another Marilyn lookalike while his missus is up the duff with twins. Manipulated by the childless Mrs Lyons into handing over one of the twins and swearing on a bible to keep the bargain, Mrs Johnstone’s supposed to see the child every day as she chars for the Lyons. Until she gets the unceremonious boot and a few grotty Pound notes!

The boys however, at seven nearly eight, find each other. Mickey Johnstone and Edward Lyons instantly display the interest of opposites. Sweary, brash and needy meets well mannered, uptight and liquid. Since they coincidentally have the same birthday they seal a blood brother pact and become best friends before the Lyons tear Edward away. The boys do find each other again later but bad blood will out.

This show ran for 24 years in revival on the West End and has been produced in Sydney a few times, including with Russell Crowe and Christina Amphlett. The show has been written by Willy Russell of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine fame and was originally penned as a school play. It’s definitely has a hint of melodrama and the music is of its time. Set in the 1960s but written in the 1980s, it has aged well.

Helen Dallimore as Mrs Johnstone is just a treat to watch. And hear. Anyone her has seen her work in Legally Blonde here knows that she has a big soprano but this show is a different animal. Using her low registers, almost oratorio, her vocal power is restrained and earthy and perfect for the room. Every so often a high note appears and it is crystal and placed perfectly. And that’s just her singing.

Her acting is pitch perfect as well. What sort of mother gives away a twin? We understand, we get her. It may not be our choice but the gentle, working poor, God fearing woman she presents to us resonates with guilelessness tempered with a ferocious love of her children. Life’s pretty tough when the Repo men take your teddy. Mind you, she doesn’t shy from a fishwife yell at those rotten kids!

Mickey (Bobby Fox) and Edward (Blake Bowden) need to age from the naïve and excitable 8 year olds to the broken and the elevated men they become by the finale. As kids they are funny and energetic and spookily like each other in various mannerisms and inflections. They are aided by a marvelously subtle costume design by Anna Gardiner who also designed the nimble set. Their relationship is so clear from the first time they meet that the inevitability of heartbreak imbues the considerable laughter with sadness.

The girl who is unwittingly the catalyst of  the rift between the boys is Linda played by Christy Sullivan with real presence and bone deep fear for what happens to boys she loves. The voice of doom is brilliantly interpreted by Michael Cormick as the Narrator and he is sanctimonious and smarmy and I felt like smacking him across his smug mug .

Actually there’s not a fag paper between any of the cast when it comes to audience engagement and that is much to do with the direction by Michael Pole. In I’m Not Saying a Word, Linda literally doesn’t. Yet her movement around the acting area deepens and enriches Edward’s agony. Also impressive is how he handles the very female pact between the mothers to split up the boys. He manages to allow the women space to vacillate and question before the deal is struck.

Pole also successfully balances the poetry of the dialogue with the smooth insertion of the music. The band is great and I loved the chime tree that just sneakily wove its way into the more aspirational scenes. But it is the sound mixing that really brings this show together. The bass injected ever so slightly into the Narrator’s feed for gravitas and power, the invisible blend from spoken to sung and the sustain of end notes by Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons. There is wonderful, busy , focused and colourful lighting as well.

BLOOD BROTHERS continues at the Hayes Theatre until 15th March. So ‘ shag the vicar’ do what you can to get a ticket. I’m just sayin’.

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