After falling in love with a production of Blood Brothers in Edinburgh in 1987, director Adelle Richards jumped at the opportunity to bring it to the stage of the Newcastle Theatre Company. Richards’ self-described strengths in direction are straight dramas, however her personal love of musicals means that a “play with music” such as Blood Brothers is the perfect outlet for her creative intellect. The strong characters and powerful storyline, with music that drives the story and defines the emotions of the cast, has produced some challenges in getting it to the stage – challenges that Richards has applied a novel set of approaches to overcome.
The show is set in Liverpool, England, and takes the audience to the late 1950s, and over the next 20 years or so follows the lives of Mickey and Eddie who are separated at birth when their mother cannot afford to keep them both – one raised in wealth and the other in poverty. In spite of this and considerable efforts to keep them apart, fate cannot be denied and they become best friends – all the while, never knowing the truth.
The years the play traverses is not the only remarkable aspect of the story, but also that some of the characters literally grow up on stage. No doubles are used in this show with adult actors required to play their 7 year old selves, who grow up as the show progresses. Such an incredible feat of character development has required some novel approaches.
To develop in the cast the ability to display characteristics and behaviours of 7 years olds, Richards has used improvisation games – supplemented with videos to observe and learn from, if the cast did not have family members to mimic that is!
Immersing her cast in the times, places and people in which the show is set has been made a little easier via her innovative use of Granada Television’s series of documentary films the Up Series – the long running BBC series that follows a group of English children from the age of 7, interviewing them every 7 years.
The first of the Up Series was filmed in 1964 and it is an extraordinary coincidence that the experiences described by the children in the documentary are directly relevant to the experiences of the 7 year old twins in Blood Brothers. Even better for Richards, some of the children in the series are from the north of England making the documentary more relevant, and allowing the cast the opportunity to learn from real life “actors”.
Richards has used this coincidence to develop in the cast the ability to play characters that develop over time. By immersing the cast in these early Up Series documentaries (and also employing the talents of a vocal coach to develop the accents required) Richards has produced skills in the cast that are not only convincing, but that convey the emotion and realism of the time and place in which Blood Brothers is set.
Richards also draws on her own experience of growing up in the north of England to convey to the cast more deeply the culture of the north. Although Richards’ experiences were of a later time, her knowledge of the people around her as she grew up has proven essential. The key has been to develop a sense of realism – the realism of poverty and struggle experienced by people in the north of England at that time.
Richards describes this as a “small” show, but there is nothing small about the characters, story and songs that keep this show moving forward through the decades on stage. While the show is not a big Broadway Belter (although it happens to have been the third longest running musical on Broadway – the other two being Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera), what it may lack in flashing lights, tap dancers and technical wizardry, it certainly makes up in characters, plot and memorable songs that will take audiences and characters along a journey of life experience – and one with a powerful ending.
The experienced cast of Jason King as the Narrator, Jackie Brown as Mrs Johnstone and Melinda Smith as Mrs Lyons, and also Luke Power, Brayden Weber, Luke Baker, Maddie Richards and Dain Watts and the talented ensemble, are required to act as well as sing. And although they may not be required to dance as much as some other musicals around the country at the moment, you can be sure that the story, songs and Richards’ innovative direction will make this a show to remember.
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