Eeny, meeny, miny, mo

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 10.

WILLY Russell isn’t a great lyricist and not much more than a journeyman composer but he’s no slouch with a heart-tugging story as his life-affirming plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine prove. The 1983 musical Blood Brothers also mines gritty British working-class life, although with a darker purpose.

There are twin boys furtively separated at birth, one taken by a childless, well-to-do family and the other raised by his natural mother, a woman with too many offspring and not enough money. The crucial moment of decision – the eeny-meeny-miny-mo moment that determines which baby stays and which one goes – will influence the course of their lives. And their deaths, which are shown in the first minutes. All the rest is flashback, or to put it another way, fate.

Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It’s winning the postcode lottery that sorts the cream from the crap in this tough northern England town. Blood Brothers is a Greek tragedy about the British class system; an uneven, passionate piece told with bold, broad, obvious strokes and a tuneful, repetitive score. A couple of the tunes are like buses to Bondi, coming along every 10 minutes or so, the Marilyn Monroe motif is worked way beyond its capacities and there’s a lumpy structure that oversells things that could be dealt with quickly and races through more important matters. But who cares? Certainly not the show’s multitudinous devotees.

Any flaws one can discern in Blood Brothers, and there are plenty, haven’t hurt the musical one bit. Far from it. Only Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera have had more music-theatre performances on the West End, and both have the advantage of being built along monumental lines. Blood Brothers is a much more modest operation. But something about its stern absolutes got under the skin. Blood Brothers is a product of the Thatcher era and Russell’s very real understanding of a divided Britain.

The 1988 revival ran for nearly 25 years and it’s commonplace to hear about people reduced to sobs at its ending, even though they know exactly what is to happen. For all its faults Blood Brothers spoke to its people and its heart-on-sleeve politics are still relevant. The divide between rich and poor continues to widen and privilege continues to bring unearned abundance.

The new, small-scale production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co goes at it with touching fervour. Scrappy Mickey Johnstone (Bobby Fox) and posh Edward Lyons (Blake Bowden) come across each other as seven-year-olds (“nearly eight”) and discover they share a birthday although they are unaware of their true connection. Their ease with one another – their essential alikeness – is in contrast to the gulf between stitched-up Mrs Lyons (Bronwyn Mulcahy) and fecund Mrs Johnstone (Helen Dallimore).

The action takes place over several decades on Anna Gardiner’s deliciously economic fold-out set, one that alas doesn’t have room to show the economical but driving four-piece band led by Michael Tyack. The musicians are banished to backstage, robbing the production of some rawness it could use with much profit.

The lengthy scenes with the boys as children show Fox and Bowden surprisingly convincing as kids in short pants, and then songs that hurtle the story forward as the deadly outcome shown at the start by the Narrator (Michael Cormick) comes closer. Cormick sings up a storm but in such a small space the inherent portentousness of the Narrator is magnified.

Andrew Pole directs with a lively, assured touch but backs away from the howling anger that is the raison d’etre of Blood Brothers. There is much to enjoy as the Narrator lugubriously invokes Fate, the impoverished Johnstone family bristles with rude energy and Mrs Lyons is a Valium crumb away from emotional collapse, but the Lyons family is overly caricatured and Dallimore’s fresh-faced, fresh-voiced Mrs Johnstone, appealing though she is, doesn’t look or feel like a woman who has had nine children and the toughest of lives. I didn’t emerge tear-stained.

Perhaps a more dangerous show will develop. Perhaps even has since opening night. Meanwhile, Blood Brothers is worth seeing for its brave heart and the lovely triangular dance of life between Mickey, Edward and Linda, the girl they both love. Christy Sullivan is a luminous Linda and Fox’s yearning Mickey and Bowden’s sweetly honourable Edward are just wonderful.

A version of this review ran in The Australian on February 12.

Blood Brothers ends March 15.

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.