The IU Department of Theatre and Drama open their 2009-2010 season with Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers. Russell is a veteran writer, teacher and hair dresser. He’s best known for the films Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. Blood Brothers is set in the Liverpool where he grew up. It was right around the time and place where the Beatles were just getting started.
Blood Brothers has the power and shape of a fable. It begins with a narrator asking “Have you heard the story of the Johnstone twins. As like each other as two new pins?” Mrs. Johnstone, Mandy Striph, abandoned by her husband and expecting number eight thinks that with a job cleaning for Mrs. Lyons, Julia Mosby, she’ll just make ends meet. Then she learns that it’s not just number eight, but nine as well. The childless Mrs. Lyons gets the superstitious Johnstone to agree to give up one of the children and we have a classic tale of nature versus nurture.
Johnstone’s son Mickey, Martin Brent, grows up in poverty, with poor education, unemployment and crime. The other child Eddie, Matt Birdsong has all the advantages of wealth and education leading to responsible political career. Along the way the two do become fast if unlikely friends. As young teens they swear blood brotherhood and even fall for the same girl, Linda, Brianna McClellan. In the final scene the deranged Mickey learns to his chagrin and anger that the more fortunate Eddie was his brother. “Why wasn’t I the one who was given away?” he asks. Either on purpose or by accident he shoots Eddie and is killed by a police sniper.
Mandy Striph as Mrs. Johnstone does a very nice job as both the young dancing lady and later the mother. Her resilience and the love that she showed for her children were a pleasure to see. In a couple of brief scenes she was simply striking as she used simple pauses where a lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to resist some sort of busyness.
The show’s narrator is in and out of the scenes, playing parts and adding verse style chants and snatches of song. Mathew Martin was by turns wise, menacing, supportive and even amusing.
Martin Brent and Matt Birdsong were the separated twins. Their varied parts and the delight that they showed in discovering one another’s company was a quite a bit of fun. Both aged nicely as they moved from boyhood into young man hood.
The first fifty minutes of the IU Department of Theatre and Drama’s Blood Brothers is about as engaging a piece of theatre as I’ve seen in quite a while and the second act although repetitive has many strong moments and the ending is a dramatically chilling. Director Murray McGibbon’s cast from the ever developing Musical Theatre program is an accomplished one. The leads were all very good. The minor characters were well defined and sharp. Terry LaBolt was the music director and led the keyboard quartet for the performance. The choreographer was William Angulo. One of my favorite scenes from Blood Brothers was of the neighborhood children all playing a complicated game that they seemed to be making up as they went. I came pretty close to believing that those college students were an engaging bunch of elementary school kids.
You can find this with other reviews and an interview with actor Mandy Striph on our web site at WFIU dot ORG.
Blood Brothers by Willy Russell
Indiana University Department of Theatre and Drama
Ruth N. Halls Theatre
October 9-10, and 13-17, 2009