A Twist of Fate- Blood Brothers at Grand Opera House York
Not everyone is convinced by old wives’ tales of the bad luck that comes from walking under ladders or crossing the path of a black cat. But Blood Brothers shows just what can happen when an unsuspecting middle class woman leaves her new shoes on the table for a little too long.
In the crumbling tenements of post-Second World War Liverpool, a pair of twins is born. But owing to the dire circumstances of their mother Mrs Johnston (Niki Evans), only one can stay. The two brothers part at birth and go off to live on either side of Britain’s stark class divide. Years later, a chance meeting not only brings them into contact, but into a bond sealed by blood. Their fates become intertwined, tragically so, with the blood which bound them together later spilling in their downfall. It all takes place against a backdrop of a slowly decaying Liverpool gradually blighted by post-war industrial decline. It is a place where, as the play’s Narrator suggests, lives are defined not so much by the superstition the characters cling to, but by ‘… what the English call class’.
The first and second acts of Willy Russell’s play are set in as much contrast as the divergent experiences of the two estranged twins. The first act has an innocence and naivety which jars against the gritty realism of the adult lives of the characters in the latter half. Toy guns and Cowboys and Indian games are traded in for all too real armed street heists and stashing firearms. The idyllic countryside where both families move feels far removed from the Liverpool backstreets and dank homes where Mickey and Linda (Carly Burns) agonise over work, mental health and even their relationship.
The opposing attitudes towards superstition further hammer the contrast home. Whereas for Mrs Johnston, whose picture of the Pope is as meaningful as the Gospel for which the Holy Father stands, Mrs Lyons’ use of a Bible to seal the sale of her cleaner’s child is cold and contractual. Sticking with the commercial theme, Mrs Lyons talks Mrs Johnston into giving up Eddie as casually as she might flick through a catalogue after her employee has just had things she ordered from one hauled away.
Superstition and the fate that goes with it are, as we are told at the end, a product and expression of the underlying class dynamics through which the story plays out rather than of mysterious other-worldly forces. The audience is left wondering whether, in the same way that Mickey and Eddie could not escape their destiny of dying together on the council chamber floor, any of the characters we see can break free from the classes which determine the course of their lives.
Niki Evans returns to the role of Mrs Johnston with enthusiasm following a 10-year hiatus. The absence, during which time her own two children have grown, seems to have brought her closer to the woman she portrays on stage. In an interview, Evans mentioned that several times she cries and laughs while in character but that it is not an act, the laughter and tears are real. The genuine outpouring of emotion is all the more impressive when we bear in mind that she has performed the role countless times. Tears streamed down her face as the curtain fell, a raw and cathartic experience shared by her and the audience.
The display shows how integral the play is to Evans’ life, but that isn’t just true for her. Sean Jones, who has played Mickey for more than two decades, met his wife Tracy Spencer who played Mrs Lyons during earlier runs.
Eddie Lyons was no less powerfully portrayed by Joel Benedict, newly-minted in the role for the show’s current run. Likewise, Paula Teppenden made her debut as the cold and haughty Mrs Lyons. Robbie Scotcher guides the audience through the story as The Narrator. Normally, these all-knowing ‘gather round the campfire, I’ve got a story to tell’ characters don’t appeal to me, but Scotcher’s performance complimented the overall play brilliantly.
The set and costumes were designed by Andy Walmsley which had the audience gaze onto the slums of Liverpool staring down the opulent middle-class home of the Lyons family.
Written by Joe Gerrard and Fruzsina Vida
Blood Brothers is at Grand Opera House York between the 5-9th of April. Tickets are available here.