Theatre Trip: Blood Brothers.

Blood Brothers by Willy Russell, a theatre review and discussion by Kate O’Brien.

I had the most brilliant Saturday because not only did I have a great day in town, enjoying great drinks, great food, and great company, but I also went to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre to see Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. 

Some readers may remember that last August I went on a #theatretrip to see Blood Brothers when the show was being performed in Belfast. If you’re a new reader and you’re interested in reading about the weekend I spent in Belfast then click the link below.

In this piece that was entitled “Blood Brothers in Belfast,” I talked about the cost of going on a little trip like this, because even though it wasn’t the longest trip, things can still get pretty pricey. I love to travel, and obviously it is no secret that I love the theatre and this can be an expensive love, but I do consider myself to be fairly realistic and I do my very best not to impulse buy. I like to sit down and properly think about what is worth a splurge and what is not. 

I was honest and transparent in this piece, I broke down the cost of everything we did, what we considered worth a splurge and why, and I also talked about some of the things we do to stay budget friendly so if you’re someone who loves a city break and would be interested in reading an honest breakdown of costs then be sure to click the link and have a read. It was a fantastic break and we ended up stumbling upon an absolutely gorgeous fairytale exhibition, which I’ve written all about and I’ve shared some gorgeous photographs from the trip so take a look! 

Blood Brothers is hands down my favourite musical. I’ve said before that it is a masterpiece. If you’re a new reader, you may not have read the piece in which I explained why this show means so much to me. To try and be brief; I studied speech and drama for years. I studied Blood Brothers for years. I was part of an amateur production of the show which was an experience that has truly stuck with me for life. I made lifelong friends, I have incredible memories, and I learned so much. It is one of those shows that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Any time I get the opportunity to go and see the show professionally, I jump at the chance. That is why we decided to make the trip to Belfast because the show was not coming to Dublin. I could not miss the show when it was only a two hour bus journey away. Later when it was announced that the show would be returning to the Bord Gáis, I didn’t even hesitate. I knew I had to see it again, and it was just sensational. 

Blood Brothers tells the tragic story of Michael and Edward Johnstone, Mickey and Eddie respectively. Mickey and Eddie are the twin sons of Mrs. Johnstone. The story begins with Mrs. Johnstone telling us all about how she ended up with seven children before she was twenty-six. Her husband has walked out on her, leaving her with seven hungry mouths to feed and another on the way. 

Struggling to get by, she takes a job as a cleaner in a big house. She works for the very wealthy Mrs. Lyons. Mrs. Lyons is desperate for a child but she has been unable to get pregnant. When Mrs. Johnstone discovers she is having twins, she doesn’t know how her family will survive. Desperate to become a mother, Mrs. Lyons convinces Mrs. Johnstone to give one of the twins to her, with the promise that she can see him everyday when she comes to work. 

Scared and desperate herself, Mrs. Johnstone agrees and Mrs. Lyons forces her to swear on the bible. After the deal has been made, Mrs. Lyons fires Mrs. Johnstone and the poor woman is determined to take her son back but Mrs. Lyons won’t allow it. She lies to the superstitious woman, telling her that twins who were parted must never learn the truth because if they do, they will die. 

The rest of the story follows Mickey and Eddie as they grow up and become the best of friends, not knowing that they are truly brothers. The story follows the boys as they grow up from the age of seven to eighteen, and as life goes on, they tragically learn that the older they get, their differences will inevitably become more apparent. Mickey grew up the youngest of eight in a very poor family with a mother who loved her children, and did her best, but she could not shield her children from the harshness of their world. Eddie, Edward grew up as an only child in a very wealthy household, with educated and wealthy parents. He had the world, and he never faced the same worries that Mickey did. 

Blood Brothers is a tragic tale. It is phenomenal. It is utterly brilliant because it is poignant, and it is tragic, but it is also incredibly funny and witty. It is raw. I think that raw is the best word to use when describing it. Willy Russell did not shy away from highlighting how difficult it is to grow up in poverty. He really captures how sometimes people just don’t have a chance. 

Mrs. Johnstone didn’t expect her husband to abandon her. She had to somehow make things work, she had to go out and find work. Very few people helped her, and many people looked down on her and her children but none of them stopped to think about how they’d fare if they were in her difficult situation. 

Ultimately it is a story of nature vs nurture, but beyond that it is a story about class differences and what they do to people. Edward was not inherently better than Mickey, he was just lucky that he was the baby Mrs. Lyons picked out of the pram. It could have just as easily been Mickey. Mickey could have just as easily had the charmed, wealthy life and he could have just as easily escaped all of the struggles that poverty entails. It was simply a matter of luck. None of us decide what family we are born into, but how others in society treat us based on something we could not control is extremely interesting. It is a huge point of discussion. It is why I think that Blood Brothers is the masterpiece that it is, because the core theme which is class differences, is a theme that has always and most likely will always be extremely relevant. How we treat those who have less than us, how we think of those who have less than us, is a conversation that needs to be had much more often. 

The story is extremely thought-provoking and there are a number of ways that one could discuss it. The dialogue is sharp and quick-witted. There are some really tender moments. The score is catchy and the music utilises repetition in a very clever way. There are many musical themes that are repeated throughout the show and I like to think of it as being one musical thread that keeps expanding. There are a lot of mirroring scenes to show the differences between the two households. We see clearly how one situation works out for Mickey and then immediately we are shown how differently it works out for Edward. There is also a brilliant back and forth between Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons and how they mother. Mrs. Lyons may be wealthier and she may be far more educated, but I would argue that Mrs. Johnstone is a much more loving and caring mother. To sum up their dynamic, I would say that Mrs. Lyons is always concerned about how situations make her feel whereas Mrs. Johnstone is primarily focused on how her children feel. Mrs. Johnstone has love pouring out of her, it’s just the lack of money that stops her from giving her children the world. It is a very interesting thing to see play out onstage because it forces us as an audience to stop and think about the assumptions we may have about other people. To see them on the street, many may automatically assume that Mrs. Lyons is the “better mother” or that because they are wealthy that the Lyons family is the “better family”, but this is not necessarily true. 

I’ve thought a lot about whether I consider it to be a top or bottom-heavy show (this refers to when one act of a show is fuller than the other) and I’ve come to the conclusion that I think it is a bottom-heavy show. Act-two covers so much ground, but I will say that I think act one does a spectacular job of setting up all of the themes that will be followed through in act two. 

The beginning of act one is quite exposition focused, we learn about Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons, we see the differences between the two women and their lives, we see the deal being created and made, and then we see the two starkly different lives that the boys have – but as we see all of this play out, we see things that are set up and then we see them mirrored and followed through in act two. It is really satisfying to see the full circle moments in terms of how the story is structured. The show also moves quite quickly. 

That is another thing that I absolutely adore about this show, the pacing. I love that from the time the curtains open in act one to the time that they close again, there is not one clap. Usually in shows, there is some applause after each song. The pacing of Blood Brothers captivates the audience, we move from one song to the next and the narrator who is always present and lurking onstage keeps things moving along. There is no time to clap after each song, but this makes for a brilliant atmosphere in the theatre because there are times when the narrator is delivering a monologue and the entire theatre is silent. You could hear a pin drop. We are hanging on his every word and it is incredible. The energy is electric, and I think this is especially impressive when you consider that the narrator tells you how the story will end right at the start. He asks us have we heard the story of the Johnstone twins? Have we heard how they were born and how they died on the same day? Have we heard about how it all came to be? – I get chills just typing this out. He asks us have we heard of Mrs. Johnstone? Then he says bring her on, and see how she came to play this part – and this brings us into the plot. 

I think it is amazing that a story and a cast can command such attention, especially in a story like this that tells the audience how it ends right at the start. 

I want to take a moment to applaud the entire cast. Blood Brothers is an extremely precise piece and there are so many things that just would not work if one person was not doing what they were meant to do. There are moments where everyone moves their head in the same direction, at the same time, at a certain beat in the music. The lighting also moves with the words at times too. It is a very impressive and precise piece. There is a moment where the narrator takes a photograph of Mickey, Eddie, and Linda and when he hands the camera back to Mickey, he holds the strap for a moment too long so the pair are forced to stand unmoving. It is a great moment because the narrator is on the stage the entire time, he is always present, always lurking, watching as this story plays out, updating the audience when he needs to. The characters are unaware of his presence and he never interacts with them. He helps move props, he hands them props, but he never has dialogue with them so this moment with the camera is incredible. It is almost like a breaking of the fourth wall in a way. I’ve had the opportunity to see Blood Brothers professionally a few times now and every single time, that moment with the camera happens the same way, at the same time, on the same beat. It is precise. This kind of exact timing takes true teamwork and this cast is an incredible team. The cast all bow together instead of bowing one by one and I think this really highlights how much of a beautiful ensemble piece this show is. 

So congratulations and bravo to the entire cast and crew. 

I can’t say enough great things about Blood Brothers. I would go to see it again tonight if I could. 

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. All I can say is that if you get the opportunity to see this show, do not miss it. It is beautiful, funny, sad, and it is a piece that will stay with you for a very long time. 

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