Archive for April, 2011

 

26/04/11

“Have you ever heard the story of the Johnstone twins?”

Yes. Yes I have. In fact I first heard the story of the Johnstone twins around 12 years ago when my school took me to see Blood Brothers in Birmingham. It wasn’t a successful trip (not least because the school bully was sitting behind me and saw fit to kick my chair/pull my hair for the duration of the performance) but I still left with the songs echoing in my cranium. Many years have passed, and I hadn’t seen or heard Blood Brothers since – so it was with a strong sense of nostalgia that I went to the New Theatre to see the latest touring production.

Set against the backdrop of ’60s Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of twins Mickey and Eddie, separated at birth when their mother, known simply as Mrs Johnstone, gives Eddie up to her wealthy employer with the promise of a better life for one of her sons. The twins grow up at opposite ends of the social spectrum, though they are inexplicably dawn together throughout their life, leading to tragic conclusions. The script encapsulates the dichotomy of rich and poor, with the inspired theme of superstition and fate running throughout.

This production represents a challenge for actors, especially the eponymous brothers, who play the characters at seven, fourteen, eighteen and finally as grown adults – the journey they take us on is remarkable, particularly Sean Jones as Mickey who plays both his adult character and a convincingly child-like seven-year-old with aplomb. Niki Evans is also outstanding as Mrs Johnstone, managing to capture the vulnerability of the twin’s desperate mother and moving between the upbeat and the heart-wrenching numbers with ease.

There were a few issues with the production. I was a little disappointed with Paul Davies as Eddie – his characterisation was too subtle for the large stage, and his voice was barely audible, even with a microphone. Also there are some aspects of the show that are now dated, most notably the narrator – who dips in and out of the story, forcing the narrative to pause in a freeze frame while he rambles on about superstitious elements that aren’t really relevant. It feels like a very 80’s motif, and one that could do with an update. In the same way, the score sometimes dips into 80’s nostalgia, and we are treated to a rathery unnecessary saxophone solo at one point which lays the echo on a bit too heavily.

Despite these issues, Bill Kenwright’s production remains exciting and intense, and has more familiar songs than you perhaps realise. The sleek combination of comedy and tragedy is done with finesse, and the overriding theme of class is approached with taste.

Willy Russell’s lyrics and dialogue is powerful, and captures both humour and emotion. His colloquial way of writing endears him to just about everybody and the audience instantly empathize with his characters. It is unfortunate, in a way, that the key themes of this play still pack a powerful punch. The examination of nature vs nurture debate has never been more clearly spelt out, and the role that class has in this debate make the tragic tale of the Johnstone twins incredibly relevant.

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14/04/11

Wastwater in the Lake District is only mentioned once in this play, yet it’s hidden depths represent the emotional undercurrents that litter Simon Stephens’s new play.

Wastwater takes the form of three elliptical episodes, all showing  characters at a pivotal turning point in their life. A foster mother and her charge discuss his imminent departure in a dilapidated farmhouse, direct in the path Heathrow’s planned third runway. A man and woman meet in a hotel room, both considering a dark form of adultery, and in a deserted warehouse, a man meets with a child-trafficker to purchase a child.

The combination of Katie Mitchell and Simon Stephens proved an irresistible draw for me. I thought Mitchell’s precision and simplicity would be a perfect accompaniment to Stephens broken, often episodic style, and I was correct. Mitchell strips back the often chaotic dialogue so characters remain almost completely stationary – the simplicity and confidence of this direction allows Stephen’s dialogue to soar, and makes the play that much more compelling as a result. The title suggests that beneath the surface of these tales there is untold depths, and Stephens does not disappoint. Each tale breaks off at a moment of physical connection – we are never granted more than terse conversation about the act to follow.

The design by Lizzie Clachan’s is just fantastic, and I am still left reeling by the speed of those set changes (It still bothers me now…how in the hell did they do that?!) Each design is markedly different from the one before it, a balmly farmhouse transforms in seconds to a plush hotel room, and the abandoned warehouse is both cavernous and intimidating.

Overall, the acting is extremely good. There is an uncertain quality to each one of the exchanges, and as each exchange progresses you can’t help but feel that something isn’t quite right. Linda Bassett stands out as the foster mother who has grown a little too close to her ward, and Jo McInnes shines as one half of the couple in the hotel room. Both verbally circle and strike one another in a sort of erotic dance cum fight. It is Stephen’s writing at it’s very best, and Mcinnes certainly does it justice.

There are links between all three stories should you wish to create an overriding narrative, the Habanera from Carmen recurs, and the characters are all linked in some way or another. A teacher slapping a student, a deadly car crash, and a foster home all link the tales, but not in any significant way. There isn’t any linear story to find in these broken narratives, instead we are presented with a snapshot of life. It is heartless at times, and certainly cruel, but there is no greater exploration of the themes presented. As a result of this, some may find Wastwater unfulfilling.

Wastwater is more shocking than I expected, but never mind that, it’s a fantastic evening in the theatre – it’s hard work, and may not appeal to those who just which to sit back and let a story wash over them, but the extra effort paid to this show does pay off. Stephens writing is almost impotent in it’s presentation of key themes. We are aware of the sinister and harsh nature of this almost dystopic world, but leave feeling powerless to stop it.  Instead we must simply mull over the existential choices each character makes, and ponder how we would act when placed in the same circumstance. Would I leave? Would I do it? What would I do? I like to think I’d make the right choice…but Wastwater suggests that perhaps I wouldn’t.