Charlie Reynolds (@charlieareyno) talking through Act One of Blood Brothers for @MTAS_Official
SPOILER ALERT: This article contains important plot information.
Blood Brothers, a musical with book, lyrics and music by Willy Russell is currently touring the UK up until November 2017. I am sure something every musical theatre fan can relate to is finding that soundtrack that just really pulls you in. For me, Blood Brothers is one of many. I can listen to it from beginning to end, without skipping, and it is a soundtrack I really enjoy listening to all the way through. Whenever I listen to a musical soundtrack I find myself thoroughly analysing the lyrics and the themes within them, something I thought would be great to share with all the rest of you who have the same passion for Russell’s creation. Whilst writing this post I realised I had quite a bit to say, so have decided to split this into two parts.
Originally developed as a play to be taught in schools, Russell transferred it to the West End for a short run in 1983. The musical won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and went on to a have a year long national tour before returning for a revival in the West End in 1988, based in the Albery Theatre for three years, transferring to the Phoenix Theatre in 1991. The show ran for more than 24 years and I was fortunate to see Natasha Hamilton as Mrs Johnstone in 2011. As far as musicals go it is one of my favourites and I have listened to the soundtrack over and over again.
Blood Brothers is set in Liverpool 1962, the story stemming from an impoverished single mother of six called Mrs Johnstone who, by finding that she is pregnant with twins, is persuaded to give up one of her unborn children to her wealthy employer, Mrs Lyons. The story unfolds by portraying how the two brothers grow up so differently without ever knowing they have a twin.
Fate brings them together unknowingly and they declare themselves Blood Brothers, from then on the story follows their persistence to remain friends and the obstacles they face as they grow older. The songs in a musical are of course a huge aspect of any production. The musical numbers in Blood Brothers manage to hold an audiences attention because they allow you to absorb the story from different perspectives. The music sets the pace of the story as they act as an outlet for the characters to express their emotions, fears and hopes. There is huge variance in the musical numbers and as an audience member it keeps you on edge and engaged within the story.
The musical opens on a council chamber, two dead bodies are lying on stretchers, surrounded by police and onlookers. The Narrator opens the story with “So did you hear the story of the Johnstone twins? As like each other as two new pins. Of one womb born on the self same day, how one was kept and one given away”. As an audience we immediately question as to what has happened and what is going to happen during the show, providing us with complete dramatic irony over the whole piece. We know that the brothers will die.
The narrator appears dressed in a black suit, possessing a neutral status, as we cannot identify anything about how he acts as a character. He has complete anonymity throughout the entire show and the fact that the characters do not acknowledge his presence gives him a ghost like quality, which is heavily reflected in the opening music. He is a constant reminder to us of the brothers’ tragic fate, as despite going back to the beginning of the story, the eerie and ghostly tone of this opening, reminds us that the conclusion of this tale will remain a tragic one.
After such a tragic scene Mrs Johnstone is welcomed onto the stage to tell her story and we as an audience are provoked to judge her intentions. She is described as a mother so cruel there is a stone in the place of her heart yet the character we witness is far from this. During this song she describes her experience of a half-hearted marriage and the arrival of many children. It begins light hearted, but it is with a bittersweet attitude of realisation that she reveals how her husband deserts her and is left to look after the children alone.
Why Marilyn Monroe? Her iconic status is used as a kind of time line that parallels the events in the show. At this point, Mrs Johnstone is younger and has her life ahead of her, comparing herself to the rising star of Monroe. The reference here also reflects the ways of the time. Marilyn is a 1950s/60s icon and reflects that ideas about women were still very traditional. It is ironic that her husband blames Mrs Johnstone for becoming pregnant again, when this could in fact be prevented if contraceptive was more accessible. There is also the attitude towards having a child out of wedlock, causing this shotgun wedding.
The dancing especially is a theme that recurs throughout, representing joyous times. However when the dancing stops, there is a sense of a downward change of fortune. Mrs Johnstone attracts her husbands whilst going dancing, she is young and carefree. However, she is forced to stop going dancing due to her pregnancy yet her husband continues to dance with other women, not accepting the responsibility of his family.
Mrs Johnstone is expected to give birth to twins, and is extremely concerned about two more children to look after. In this song we first begin to see the huge contrast of social classes between Mrs Johnstone’s home and the home in which she is employed as a cleaner for Mr and Mrs Lyons. It is clear that the home of Mrs Johnstone plays host to childhood games and a muddled household, where as Mrs Lyons is often left alone without her husband, within an impeccable home. Mrs Lyons is so desperate to have a child she persuades Mrs Johnstone into passing one of the twins on to her. Hesitant at first, she begins to find desire for her child to have a good upbringing.
The song begins the complicated relationship that will persist between these two women. The title is actually very interesting, as despite making this a binding agreement, both see the child as theirs. Throughout the musical we see a huge contrast between them. At the beginning, the Narrator describes Mrs Johnstone as “the mother, so cruel” – but this not what we are led to think of her. As an audience we are ultimately sympathetic of the decision she is about to make. We see her barely managing her house full of children with endless patience and tenderness. Despite being trapped by her social position she is down-to-earth and does not see money as the answer to all her problems. Even knowing the ending, we are unaware as to how this makes Mrs Johnstone so cruel. We live in the moment with her, understanding her motives and the trauma she is facing.
It has already been heavily acknowledged in the musical of how important social class is. It acts as a huge conflict, mirroring the battle between the two mothers. The song initially deals with Mrs Johnstone letting go of her son, however the lyrics heavily link to the issue of class. In this instance, “the never, never” means being continually in debt and never, never being in a position to pay the debt in full. Mrs Johnstone sees this hand over as the price she has to pay to be able to survive.
Class here shows how it can affect how people are able to live their lives and the situations they find themselves in. Without class there would be no musical, as Mrs Johnstone would never have had to give up her baby. Mrs Lyons discovers they are born, and Mrs Johnstone pleads to keep them for a few more days. But Mrs Lyons refuses, and the oath Mrs Johnstone gave causes her to give in. I think it is key that Mrs Johnston says “You better say which one you want then” – forcing Mrs Lyons to pick one, becoming to hard for Mrs Johnstone, unaware of how this will impact her sons lives.
This is where the nature vs. nurture debate becomes really apparent in the show. This debate is generally very complex, but it questions how much a persons life is determined by their inherited genetics, their nature, and how much it is determined by the environment they grow up in, nurture. The children are twins and so the difference in the way their lives turn out are ultimately as a result of their different upbringings and social positions. Russell uses the twins to persuade us that attitude in society influences peoples lives more than their individual effort at wanting to do well.
Shoes Upon The Table
Mrs Lyons names her son Edward, Mrs Johnstone naming her son Mickey. Mrs Johnstone continues to work for Mrs Lyons, but she soon feels that Mrs Johnstone is paying to much attention to the child that she gave up. Becoming more and more paranoid she fires Mrs Johnstone and plays on her superstitions by telling her that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die. It is almost ironic using superstitious imagery, as she believes the lie that Mrs Lyons tells her. The narrator uses this song to remind Mrs Johnstone of her foolishness of letting her child go and as a result reminds her it will be her most costly mistake.
Mrs Johnstone doesn’t acknowledge the narrators presences and his ghostly presence denotes that she is haunted by her decision. She has realised the mistake she has made but the omniscient narrator warns her that it is too late and that the devil will find her. Not only does he act as an informer to the audience, he is Mrs Johnstone’s conscience, using the imagery to make her feel fear and regret. It is sufficient to say that most of the consequences and most of the events in the play are traced back to this event. It is also ironic that the made up superstition that is imposed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, being reminded constantly of this curse by the repetition of the motif in the song.
Things get a little brighter in the story, almost eight years later Mickey meets Edward and they both learn that they share the same birthday, the two boys making a pact to become “Blood Brothers”. For the audience, there is huge delight in watching Mickey and Eddie’s friendship blossom, knowing that they are brothers, the dramatic irony is a point of humour almost, but reminds us further of the superstitious curse that Mrs Lyons has inflicted.
Interestingly, the actors remain as adults when playing the children, and themes of childhood and adolescence are really important to the show, strongly showed in this song. Mickey appears as a childhood leader in the song, and acts as a hero-figure for Eddie who is in awe of Mickey’s energy. If anything Eddie seems to have suffered from a lack of childhood, acting polite and contained. The nature and nurture debate comes back here, as do we think that the brothers individual identity is formed by how they were raised or does Russell suggest that there heredity nature influences their relationships with each other. Despite Eddie being nurtured into a well-spoken, middle class boy and Micky as a working-class troublemaker, they both seem to connect. The bond of their friendship disregards their upbringing and almost suggests that fate and heredity are working together to bring them back together.
This song especially allows us to see the fun the children have, playing imaginary games. However, Russell isn’t just showing children playing, he brings a further sense of bitter irony to Mickey’s involvement in a shooting later in the show. In the games, if the children are shot they can cross their fingers, count to ten and get back up again. It represents their innocence and how they see it as simply a game. Of course, when both Sammy and Mickey take part in a gun robbery, it is not a game when Sammy shoots someone dead. It references how things can be so much simpler when you can be young and carefree.
Gypsies In The Wood
Knowing that the two have become playmates devastates Mrs Lyons, fearing that her well-bred, middle-class son will now begin to follow in the footsteps of Mickey. The narrator similarly acts as Mrs Lyons conscience as he does for Mrs Johnstone. He follows her around and hangs over her, reiterating her deepest fears that her baby will be taken away. Despite wanting the best for her son, she retracts at the idea of his interaction with other children, especially the boy she knows to be Eddie’s twin.
In a desperate attempt to keep Eddie to herself, she persuades her husband to move the family away from the city. Again, we encounter the nature vs. nurture debate. Mrs Lyons fear causes her to make Eddie her own, bringing him up the way she desires. Despite this protection, Eddie still finds his way back to his brother, causing her to suffer a dreadful insecurity at the consequence of this, revealing herself as an obsessive mother.
Long Sunday Afternoon & My Friend
Eddie leaves with much reluctance, and both brothers have to bid a sad farewell to each other. Mickey, out playing alone, sings of his loneliness now Eddie has moved away. Both brothers sing about their lost friendship, both overcoming the class boundaries to secure a bond of friendship. The song denotes what each other wears and how they speak, causing us to make assumptions of the pair. Eddie appears with his clothes neat and tidy, where as Mickey swears like a soldier. The accents can also be brought to life in this song further reminding us of the class differences between them
Bright New Day
Mrs Johnstone must put on a brave face as she says goodbye to her son for the second time. In the show, we witness a true maternal bond between the pair as they say goodbye, a more affectionate moment than we ever see with Mrs Lyons. Soon after Eddie’s departure, Mrs Johnstone receives news that her family are being relocated to a new housing estate out of the town. This is probably the first moment we see a sense of optimism in the score, giving Mrs Johnstone the chance to start her life again.
The scene shifts to the time around the end of the 1960s when the Johnstone family are being rehoused from the condemned inner city slum area of Liverpool to a new council house in the nearby overspill town of Skelmersdale. In reality this was designated a New Town in 1961, designed to house the overspill population. It endured mixed economic fortunes during the last three decades of the 20th century with an economic downturn in the late 1970s where large industrial employers left the town resulting in an increase in crime, drug abuse and poverty, strong features of the second act.
This information makes the song once more ironic. Mrs Johnstone is extremely excited about the move, focused on the smallest aspects of life to be excited about, from washing staying clean on the line to the potential of going dancing with a gentleman at the weekend. Dancing features heavily in the song, whereby Mrs Johsntone has reached the happiness she possessed at the beginning, wishing to dance with Mickey. Despite the song being upbeat we still have sympathy for her as we know that this happiness will not last.
So there have it, an analysis of the first act of Blood Brothers. Look out for Part 2 and if you have any thoughts or comments I would love to discuss them below.
Part 2 of Charlie’s blog will be published on Sunday the 8th January 2017 – keep your eyes open!