Blood Brothers felt like a musical without music. Actually, considering the musical version of Blood Brothers ran for over 20 years in London, most people probably know it as a musical. Following the lives of two brothers – twins separated at birth – the play spans the 1960s and 70s in Liverpool, dealing with themes of connection, loss, love, and class. This week’s production in the Byre Theatre, directed by Seb Bridges, did its best to tackle the complexities of a decades-spanning family drama, and in many ways, it succeeded. However, despite a number of quality performances the play was ultimately limited by a lackluster script.
The first few minutes of the play version are actually a musical, with Lydia Seed showing excellent singing ability in a charming opening number. Regrettably, this was the last time we got any music, and Willy Russell’s script feels like it needs more. Scenes are abrupt, characters change and react and make discoveries far too quickly, resulting in important moments being rushed through without proper time to let their impact sink in. Almost every scene is begging for a musical number for characters to explore motivations, justify their actions, and grow in a way that feels organic. This sense of a rushed narrative is only compounded by the length of the play – at just barely an hour and a half (including an interval), Blood Brothers is among the shortest so far this year, and it suffers as a result.
This is such a shame, because almost every other element of the production showed promise. Acting was solid across the board, with St Andrews veteran Louis Catliff (playing Mickey) giving the best performance I have yet seen from him as a rambunctious, energetic child. Catliff’s physicality as a boy of seven was wonderful to watch, his measured control as an actor only matched by the immense energy he brought to his character. Catliff has a comfort zone. In it, he’s good. Out of it, he’s brilliant. Matthew Colley was similarly excellent as Mickey’s twin brother Eddie, showing off the adorable charm and innate watchability that he is known for. Seb Allum, in turn, was the perfect choice for the narrator, putting his beautifully soothing voice on full-display, and Eleanor Burke brought a delightful dynamism and humor to what could easily have been a bland role, giving the whole play an air of confidence it might otherwise have lacked.
While Bridges has shown a promising debut as a director (especially with regards to the performances he’s brought out of his actors), the play lacked the polish that one normally expects to see in the Byre. Scene transitions involving the narrator sucked the pace and energy out of the play, to the point that it almost seemed to drag despite the short length. Similarly, the production suffered from an unsure tone that almost pushed the play’s shocking denouement into being comic, as opposed to a grim surprise. Other small gripes – an unswept stage and too-tight lighting on individual parts of the set – only contributed to this sense of roughness. On a smaller stage, similar issues are easier to ignore – unfortunately the scale of the Byre can tend to exacerbate a plays flaws, leaving the show with little room to hide.
Unfortunately Blood Brothers needed more from Willy Russell – more depth, more time, more room to breathe – something it perhaps received when it was later turned into a musical. I applaud Bridges and his team for doing good work despite this, but for future endeavors they may be better served by choosing a text and stage that are more suited for each other.