Review: Blood Brothers (King's Theatre Glasgow)
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
This production of Blood Brothers feels like it exists in multiple times at once. It was written in the 1980s, set in the 1960s, and harks back to Ancient Greek traditions of narration and prophesies. The musical tells the story of twins Mickey and Eddie (Alex Patmore and Joel Benedict), who are separated at birth and grow up on different sides of the tracks, and who we are told are destined to die on the same day.
Ann Robins plays their mother, Mrs Johnson, who is forced to make an impossible decision about what would be best for her children when she has one more mouth than she can afford to feed. For such a critical and emotional retching dilemma, the scene plays out as very restrained. Paula Tappenden plays the adoptive mother Mrs Lyons, and between her and Robins the scene has almost no sense of surprise. It is as though they can’t help but let their own anticipation leak into their performances. Robins more than proves she has talent when it comes to the musical numbers, but still through there is an underlying staleness to her performance.
The same could be said of some of the staging and dramaturgy. Aside from one or two moments of inspiration, for example the twins’ stretching their shirts over their knees which becomes a sign of youthful rebellion, there’s little to say about how the story is being told theatrically. All of the story and character development are explained through the script and songs, rather than the action on stage. The sets are well made and visually rich, but often it is as though the actors have been put there like decorations or dolls, rather than as characters inhabiting the space.
Directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright seem much more comfortable directing ensemble scenes; the choreography of a musical number set in a playground is joyful and messy enough to make you forget you are watching grown adults pretending to be children. Well, that is until Benedict enters the stage. Playing Eddie, his performance as the-lonely-child-born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth is rather like a tax accountant, with a stiff, proper posture and his words enunciated with pinpoint precision. Even if it doesn’t make for a convincing seven year old, it makes for an entertaining interaction. As his character grows up however, he really comes into his own and delivers as a hopeless romantic.
But it’s not enough to overshadow Patmore. As seven-year-old Mickey, his childlike mannerisms are wholly convincing. He bounds on sofas and slumps to the ground in a way that would make any grown adult nervous to be in his vicinity. He delivers lyrical poetry without dropping a single characteristic. In his final form as a depressed, psychotic addict, he strikes the perfect balance between selling his character’s hardship, and not allowing his presence to overwhelm or distract from the storyline. It’s a performance worth seeking out all on its own.
But it means contending with the biggest hindrance of the show; the narrator, played by Robbie Scotcher. The musical begins with a Shakespeare-style prelude telling us of the twins' doom from a man in a suit, who looks so cleanly put together he could be a play mobile figure. Spooky, dramatic, no problem there. The trouble is, he never leaves. Whenever anything is happening on stage, you can find him skulking somewhere in the background like an assassin from a James Bond film. He regularly interrupts the action to break out into a dreadful rock ballad called “The Devil’s Got Your Number”, jerking the audience away from whatever sentiment was being built up in the scene, and flooding the stage with blue lighting and tacky rattlesnake sounds. The result is a show that is too silly in places to become fully invested in, but too earnest and emotional to be considered camp.
But still, this won’t stop audience members who love the show from coming to see it again. One can’t help but overhear excited audience members tell each other how many times they’ve seen it as we get settled in our seats. That might explain why this production has done so little to update or amend its source material. Early on there’s a wince-inducing reference to the children playing “Cowboys and Indians”, which without being a crucial plot point is a baffling detail to retain. All the worse is the way the musical treats gender, women, and the male gaze. The story is built around outdated gender roles; the disinterested husbands, the shared love-interest who is given very little development, the Law of Inverse Fertility (whereby a woman who doesn’t want children will get pregnant, whilst a woman who does cannot), and more besides.
They’re all tropes that have been worn into the ground and that audiences are, sadly, used to. What has no place in any modern production is the sexualisation of children. There are several instances during the performance, but the most egregious is when Mickey is with his crush Linda on a bus. When the conductor learns that Linda is fourteen, he moans “ain’t life a bitch?”. It’s a moment of blatant paedophilia that expects the audience to relate. It’s not just that moments like this have not aged well – they were never acceptable to begin with.
Theatre is one of the few art forms where the works have the chance to evolve and adjust for changing times, which means that theatre makers have to take responsibility when those changes aren’t made. This musical has grown stale in more ways than one. The parts that live on in audience members hearts are still there; the friendship, the family, the tragedy, but it is let down by the production’s refusal, or perhaps inability, to move with the times. Bar a stellar performance from Patmore, Blood Brothers has little to offer to any modern audiences. Three stars.
Whispers from the Crowd:
“It was Fabulous! She’s the person to ask, she’s seen it five times!”
“I’ve seen it five times. I didn’t like the mother [Ann Robins]”