Wednesday 24 April 2024

Blood Brothers

 Curve, Leicester

23rd April, 2024

And only if we didn’t live in life, as well as dreams

A NY Times theatre critic recently said that the thing about live theatre is that it’s perpetually dying. That’s not the case with Blood Brothers. Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s production has been playing almost continually since the mid-80s. Willy Russell’s 1983 musical of twins separated at birth only to grow up on different sides of the track is an epic tale of class and superstition. Its original production closed after 6 months, but after Kenwright and Tomson picked up the reins, they reworked and refined the show on tour before taking it back into the West End in 1988. Alongside the show’s 24-year run in London (I was there on closing night in 2012!), the show has enjoyed UK tours and international productions. Even by the early 90s, when the show opened on Broadway, it had achieved ‘Now and forever’ status. In a successful attempt to whip up word of mouth about the show, Kenwright reportedly flew 87 guests from the UK to New York for the opening, including several London critics. He was arguably the show’s biggest champion and in return it’s probably his biggest hit. Blood Brothers is as strong as ever, with not only audience members returning but also cast members staying with the show for decades. The result is that both new and returning cast members breathe new life into it.

After agreeing to give one of her twins away to the upper-class lady she cleans for, the superstitious Mrs Johnstone is forced to make a pact. If either twin finds out they’re one of a pair, she’s convinced they’ll both immediately die. The next couple of hours condenses thirty years of their lives, from when they’re seven (nearly eight!), teenage friendships, and the hardships of their young adult lives set on the backdrop of the dole lines of Thatcher’s government. The cast do well to manage the fine line between melodrama and mawkish. As Mrs Johnstone, Niki Colwell Evans carries the show’s emotional intensity to its inevitably tragic end. She also has a powerhouse voice, especially in her vocal inflections in ‘Easy Terms’, her riffs in ‘Bright New Day’ and her performance in ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’. Complementing her throughout, Sarah Jane Buckley pitches a beautifully understated performance as Mrs Lyons. Scott Anson, returning to the role of the omniscient Narrator after 20 years, is a more menacing narrator than some past interpretations. Stalking the stage for much of the show, he really comes into his own in the monologues. The ‘Summer Sequence’, charting the highs and misbegotten dreams of being a teenager, is especially moving. But the heart of the show comes in the relationship between Mickey, Eddie (Joe Sleight) and the girl in the middle of the pair, Linda (Gemma Brodrick). Sean Jones has been playing Mickey since the 90s and charts the journey from youthful innocence to adult tragedy compellingly. He’s crafted his performance over 25 years but what’s refreshing is that he’s still as invested as the new cast members. From his brotherly bond with Eddie and awkward teenage presence with Linda, you can see him reacting in the moment to new things Sleight and Brodrick are bringing to their roles. It’s their innocence and the actors’ conviction to the show’s momentum which makes the ending so devastating. Timothy Lucas as Mickey's older brother Sammy also brings new ideas to the role.

Kenwright and Tomson keep the show moving at an impressive pace on Andy Walmsley’s multi-functional set, with the iconic Liver Building towering over the streets of terraced houses in the background. Russell's text is filled with motifs, echoes and parallels which their direction enhances. Hiding places for toy guns become hiding places for real guns, childhood jokes extend into adulthood, and Russell’s melodies and lyrics are cleverly reprised. Apart from a line that’s been understandably cut from the second act, the show remains the same now as it has for years. Whether Blood Brothers is a fan favourite to which they keep returning or a reluctant student’s gateway into theatre, it’s still a resounding success. Six months after his death, it remains one of Kenwright’s lasting legacies to British theatre.

Blood Brothers plays at Leicester’s Curve until 27th April as part of a UK tour. For further information, please visit

The cast of Blood Brothers. Credit: Jack Merriman

Friday 12 April 2024

The Motive and The Cue, and Dear England

 We saw The Motive and The Cue at the National Theatre Lyttelton on 3rd June, 2023 and Dear England at the National Theatre Olivier on 28th July, 2023

Two of the biggest new plays of last year opened on the South Bank. Big in terms of their subjects, staging, cast sizes and acting prowess, both also enjoyed huge reach. Jack Thorne’s The Motive and The Cue concluded its run at the Noel Coward Theatre last month and was broadcast in cinemas across the country. James Graham’s Dear England was the first play to run at the Prince Edward Theatre in nearly 80 years, has also enjoyed an NT Live screening and will soon be adapted into a miniseries for the BBC. Both were immensely enjoyable pieces of theatre and among our theatrical highlights of 2023. And yet, I’ve struggled to write about them since. Not because they were unremarkable – far from it. Reflecting on them several months on, and in anticipation of the Olivier Awards this weekend, I find it striking how the plays share some qualities.

Both plays feature characters based on real people from recent history. And, in a way, both are work plays in which characters bring a new approach which clashes with the old. One play looks inwards at the world of theatre and acting through the lens of Richard Burton’s Hamlet in 1964, the other is a state of the nation play about the England men’s football team under Gareth Southgate’s management. One was stylish and elegant in the hands of Sam Mendes, the other a high concept, fast-paced production by Rupert Goold. One strived for verisimilitude even with its minor characters, the other a more broad-brush approach even with some of its more significant characters.

A dream itself is but a shadow

The Motive and The Cue depicts the month-long rehearsal period of John Gielgud’s Broadway production of Hamlet. From the read-through to the first preview, scenes from the rehearsal room document the increasingly fraught relationship between Gielgud and Burton as their styles rub up against each other. For Burton, the weight of Gielgud’s Hamlet bears down on him made worse by a perceived lack of practical direction. For Gielgud, the feeling that he produced his best work at 27 can’t quite escape him. Thorne based his play on two books, both chronicling the troubles from the rehearsal room, and he structures the play excellently so the tension bubbles away. Initially it’s perhaps just a phrase that’s taken the wrong way or which has been deliberately loaded, designed to irritate. This slowly builds to some explosive arguments and there are some delicious lines. But this is more than just a backstage drama, it’s a play about aging, and actors’ changing approach to their process. Ultimately, the play’s the thing. It’s what drives a wedge between them but also leads to their reconciliation. The payoff is that Gielgud is able to unlock the play for Burton who finds his own way of approaching the Dane. As Gielgud says, “Your actions. Your deeds. Your Hamlet”.

These scenes are interspersed by lighter scenes featuring Burton (Johnny Flynn) with his wife Elizabeth Taylor (during their first marriage) and parties in their apartment. Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) is given more credibility here than some other representations of her, such as in the TV film Burton and Taylor (2013). She’s fun and doesn’t fully realise her own talents but also has a passion for theatre even though she comes from a different acting lineage. She also exudes great chemistry with Burton and has some cracking lines. When Burton can’t decide whether he needs a drink or a slap, she replies ‘I believe you married me because I’m quite prepared to give you both’. Other scenes are tête-à-têtes between Gielgud and Taylor, or his stage manager, or even a gigolo. Mark Gatiss’ performance as Gielgud is superb. His portrayal goes beyond the aphorisms and ‘Dear boy’ term of endearment, digging deeper to capture his care with words, his loneliness, modesty and temperament consistently and credibly.

Reading the text, I was fascinated by Thorne’s use of stage directions to navigate the escalating tensions between Burton and Gielgud: ‘A match flares between them’, ‘Gielgud knows this moment will blow up if he continues’, ‘They are still circling each other, but finally Gielgud goes for the kill’. The beats and silences give time for characters to process thoughts and calculate their next steps which makes for great drama. Mendes’ production realised this with such clarity, echoed in Es Devlin’s set with its fine eye for detail and smooth scene transitions. The Motive and The Cue is a great character study and a sharply written play, deserving of the Olivier.

And the dream is over for England

Rufus Norris isn’t the first Artistic Director of the National to use their tenure to ask questions about nationhood. Indeed, asking what it means to be a National Theatre and what work should be on its stages is a key part of its role. His touring production of Carol Ann Duffy’s My Country was an ambitious if flawed attempt at holding a mirror up to the nation. Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon offered an epic slice of English folklore and a scramble to diagnose contemporary Britain’s problems. And Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ excellent Death of England series uses football to explore English national identity in relation to race and class. Now its James Graham’s turn to ask the England question. And who better than Graham, who’s become celebrated for his ‘modern history’ plays which include This House, Ink and Quiz, to write a big play about the highs and lows of Gareth Southgate’s English national football team for a national stage.

It’s unashamedly populist fare that wears its heart on its sleeve. In the first act, we’re given a potted history of the team’s disappointments in recent history followed by Southgate’s appointment and how the team adjusts to his new approach. The crux of the play comes from fear being at the heart of what’s holding England back. Southgate’s job is to change England’s story. And what better way to tap into the national psyche than with the presence of an actual psychologist. Much of the play’s conflict comes from Southgate’s addition of Head of People and Team Development Pippa Grange (an ever-watchable Gina McKee) to his team. Her approach to make the team fearless is too touchy-feely for some. Dramaturgically, she slows the pace of the play and gives it some space to breathe. Despite Southgate and the team being recognisable names and faces, it’s strange that she seems the most real character on stage. Much has been said about Joseph Fiennes as Southgate, Will Close as Harry Kane and Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford. They give hugely enjoyable, uncanny, performances. And it’s perhaps a clever trick from Graham and Goold that they seem even more like their real-life counterparts because the chorus is made up of a parade of caricatures (including vicars, milkmen and workmen) giving a street-level commentary on England’s woes and triumphs.

Ultimately, the play is a game of two halves. In the second, Graham has given himself quite the task: he’s got to finish act one and work through another two, both of which go deeper with its questions. As Southgate says, it’s about something much bigger than football. It does start to feel a little rushed and as a result doesn’t quite live up to the first act. But this is not to detract from the play’s successes. Whilst it may not be the most intellectually rousing, Dear England is emotionally stirring in a way that plays seldom are.

The Motive and The Cue and Dear England can still be seen at cinemas across the country. For more information, please visit The Olivier Awards will be presented in a ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall on 14th April. Both plays have been nominated for Best New Play alongside Jez Butterworth’s The Hills of California and Beth Steel’s Till The Stars Come Down.

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn in The Motive and The Cue. Credit: Mark Douet

Lewis Shepard, Albert Magashi, Josh Barrow, Will Close, Ebenezer Gyau, Darragh Hand, Adam Hugill, Ryan Whittle in Dear England. Credit: Marc Brenner.