Blood Brothers -Palace Theatre, Manchester

I spent yesterday afternoon with my eldest daughter watching the fantastic Willy Russell play, Blood Brothers.

I should mention that this is not my first time viewing this wonderful play. I watched it about 4 years ago and a couple of years before that. Having heard the song “Tell Me It’s Not True”, years earlier, when the show that it came from came to Manchester, I made sure we had good tickets.

I loved it. I loved it the first time, I loved it the second time and I loved it again yesterday. Blood Brothers is a funny, yet poignant tale of a poverty-stricken mother, Mrs Johnstone, (played in this performance by Maureen Nolan) who gives up one of her newborn twins to a well-to-do lady, Mrs Lyons (played by Kate Jarmon). The Narrator (played by Marti Pellow) goads the two mothers about the consequences of their “deal”, as he stands in the background and periodically reminds them that “the Devil’s got your number”, in true bogeyman fashion.

As the boys, Mickey and Eddie, meet up accidentally as seven (nearly eight!) year old boys, they are amazed that their birthdays fall on the same day, so they decide to become blood brothers. Although they lose touch following Mrs Lyon’s determination to move away to keep them apart, they meet again as teenagers and eventually fall in love with the same girl. Mickey’s poor upbringing and Eddie’s posh upbringing comes between them as Mickey finds himself with a pregnant wife and without a job, while Eddie goes off to university and becomes a councillor. They are poles apart as Mickey refuses financial help from Eddie and rejects his friendship.

Desperate for money, Mickey helps his brother with a robbery where someone gets shot. Despite having no involvement with the actual shooting, Mickey is sent to prison for 7 years. Hitting rock bottom, he becomes clinically depressed and starts taking anti-depressants. By the time he comes out of prison he is like a zombie. His wife and childhood sweetheart, Linda, goes to Eddie for help to get them a house and a job for Mickey as she fights with Mickey to stop taking the pills. Linda seeks solace with Eddie and when Mickey finds out, he takes a gun to the council chambers to confront Eddie. As Mickey is surrounded by police, Mrs Johnstone runs into the chambers to announce that they are, in fact, twin brothers. Mickey’s gun goes off and shoots Eddie and the police instantly shoot Mickey. Both brothers lay dead surrounded by Mrs Johnstone, Mrs Lyons, the Narrator and Linda as they sing “Tell Me It’s Not True”.

Maureen Nolan was magnificent as Mrs Johnstone, the best one by far out of the three productions I’ve seen. Her portrayal of the hard-working mother was a perfect balance of playful, funny and despairing. Her powerful voice beautifully carried the songs throughout the entire production. “Easy Terms” was a particular highlight. She certainly made up for Marti Pellow’s shortcomings in the role as Narrator. As he attempted to speak in a Liverpudlian accent but unable to control his Scottish pronunciation, his words were mumbled, which left us struggling to tell what he was saying. When he sang, he was loud and clear but slightly out of time with the music on some of the faster paced songs (although I suppose the band may have sped up!) although his voice complemented that of Nolan’s. He managed to just about get through it without ruining the show and was particularly helpful with prop-shifting between each scene!

The “children”, as in every performance I’ve seen, were fantastic, particularly Sean Jones as Mickey and Danielle Corlass as Linda. However, Joe Speight as Eddie and Danny Taylor as Sammy, Mickey’s older brother also did very well as fully grown adults pretended to be young children. The mannerisms were perfect throughout as they portrayed the little scallywags of a 1960’s Liverpool council estate. As they got off their pretend horses every few minutes (taking care to tie them up with their reins) and played cowboys and Indians, they were hilarious as they perfected every nuance of a typical 8 year old child. Mickey, the hyperactive little brother of naughty but revered Sammy and Linda, the clued up and pretty tomboy, are partners in crime with Eddie completing the trio. My stomach ached with laughter at their antics.

Joe Speight did well as Eddie, stepping in for Joel Benedict, but Sean Jones was absolutely spot on as Mickey. His 7 (nearly 8) year old characterisation was funny and his every movement and gesture had been carefully choreographed to give maximum effect. As an adult Mickey, Jones managed to hide the twinkle in his eye that shone so brightly in Act One to play the downtrodden young, yet old, man in Act Two. Corlass manages the same effect in her portrayal of Linda. The stark contrast between youth and adult adds to the poignancy of the final scenes.

In each of the three performances of Blood Brother’s I have seen, despite laughing heartily at a large chunk of the play, there is always that one point where the tears are guaranteed to flow. “Tell Me It’s Not True” is a stunning song and a poignant end to this tragic tale. As the rest of the cast members joined with Mrs Johnstone leading the vocals, the audience shared their sadness. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (except my daughter’s who just doesn’t cry!!) and I’m glad I was unable to stop the tears, as, to me, that was a sign of an amazing performance. To laugh so much and yet to finish the show in tears is a credit to the cast who have themselves  portrayed a multitude of emotions to make the performance spectacular.

I’ll certainly be going again the next time it’s in Manchester. Fourth time’s a charm!

World Book Day – a celebration or a mourning?

Tomorrow (Thursday 5th March) is World Book Day and it seems to pass by each year with a whimper rather than the bang it absolutely deserves.

World Book Day was first celebrated in 1995, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s inception was as a result of the commercial success of the Internet in the mid-90’s. Was this the brainchild of a fellow literature fan who feared the impact that the internet may have on the concept of books and reading?

When my (now almost 15-year-old) daughter was in primary school in the mid-noughties, her school went all out for World Book Day. The kids dressed up, the teachers dressed up. The entire day was devoted to all things literary. Sure, there were the kids who wore their Disney princess outfits and there were Captain Jack Sparrow outfits as far as the eye could see but a lot of these characters originated from books, I rationalised. Some parents complained that little Alice had dragged them to Disney Store for a top of the range Belle outfit and that little Jack didn’t even read books. Signs of the times, in retrospect.

As the years passed the celebrations dwindled to a passing mention in the newsletter and by the time my other (now 8-year-old) daughter started school, it was only mentioned in passing that they would not be celebrating World Book Day as there was a non-uniform day at the end of the week instead. What a sad state of affairs!

All change again this year! My 8-year-old and my 3-year-old have brought letters home from school and nursery to say they can bring their book in to school and send in a photo (by email, of course!) of said children reading their books in an obscure place around the home.

This instigated a discussion amongst friends about the various ways in which schools are celebrating World Book Day and it seems that some schools are still making a day of it, dressing up, a day positively overflowing with literary activities. Yet some schools are barely acknowledging it. As I lamented this affront to the world of literature, a friend replied “yeah, but you’re a book lover”. I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree and perhaps I have taken this a bit too seriously, but surely, in schools of all places, World Book Day should be an opportunity in this increasingly technological age to actively encourage children to cherish literature and all that it can offer.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that reading is not encouraged in our schools. After all, the ability to read is taught in our schools (to varying degrees of success if you believe the tabloids) and, one would hope, will be further encouraged at home. However as tablets and video games become such a massive part of our culture, the lowly book seems to be the consolation prize for when the batteries run out. Whilst I encourage my girls to read as much as possible, when they can be easily visually entertained by their devices, books just seem too much like hard work to them. Imagination? What’s that?

I understand the appeal of technological products. My iPhone is never far away from me. I also have a Kindle and the Kindle app on my phone. I don’t share the view of many other literature advocates that actual, honest-to-goodness, books are the only way to read. Reading is reading, whichever medium you use, in my humble opinion. However, I still appreciate the value of reading a good book. Immersing yourself in a fantasy world for a little while as you take a break from the trials and tribulations of everyday life is an amazing tonic.

I desperately want my children to enjoy reading and to indulge in a good book as often as possible, and they do, to a large extent (although how much of that is as a result of my thrusting a book into their face at the earliest opportunity, I couldn’t say). I fear that books may eventually disappear into the ether and the hobby that I have enjoyed since I was knee-high to a grasshopper will be frowned upon. “Reading? Why on earth would you do that? Just watch the film! Save yourself all that hard work!”

I may be exaggerating the situation somewhat but in a time when we see so many remakes of films and regurgitated ideas for drama, I wonder if the up and coming film-makers and screenwriters will have the imaginations to come up with anything  new in years to come. Books feed the imagination and the fact that a day has been earmarked across the globe for the celebration of literature, this day should warrant an important calendar note. I’m sure there’s an app for that!