Meaty debate is seldom at the heart of musical theatre. Grown men and women dressing up as cats, sure, but it’s not often you’re left pondering the balance between socialisation and biological determinism in shaping human behaviour. Take that into consideration and you can get on board with John Payton’s idea that Blood Brothers is ‘probably the most unique musical out there’.
Payton is directing the Dubai production of the show, opening at the First Group Theatre this week. Recently voted the Best British Musical of All Time by New York Times readers, directing Blood Brothers is quite a responsibility. So what’s Payton’s response to that? ‘Tell me about it!’ he laughs.
You could say Blood Brothers is the musical for people who don’t like musicals. Written by Willy Russell, a working-class kid from Merseyside who went on to write the likes of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, its themes range from nature versus nurture, growing up and fate to superstition and economic recession. ‘Some people call it a play with music, which is not true because there are a lot of excellent, very memorable musical numbers in the show,’ insists Payton. ‘But it’s nothing like The Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables, where everyone sings the whole way through. It’s about real things, and it’s a really engrossing and involving story. There’s real heart and character to it.’
Back to that meaty debate. Few would dispute that at Blood Brothers’ core is the question of nature versus nurture – whether a person’s personality and behaviour is determined by genetics or experience. In it, twins Mickey and Eddie are separated at birth. Mickey remains with his mother Mrs Johnstone, a cleaner, and Eddie is adopted by his real mother’s upper-class employer, Mrs Lyons. The pair make a pact to never reveal the truth to the boys, and Mrs Lyons plays on Mrs Johnstone’s superstitions by telling her that ‘if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair, they will both immediately die’. The show explores the effects of each boy’s upbringing, and what happens when they meet. Ideas about superstition and fate are also intertwined. ‘If you’re superstitious, do you make things happen or were they always going to?’ asks Payton. ‘All these things about natural law and messing with bloodlines… these are wonderful, sort of mythical ideas that are rooted in old-fashioned storytelling. It’s a modern story with a classical context.’
Playing Mickey, the boy who grows up on the wrong side of the tracks, is Mark Hammersley. He says he relates to Mickey’s situation and the show’s setting in working-class Liverpool, having grown up in nearby Warrington and observed first-hand the effects of environment on an individual’s future. ‘I had a lot of friends I grew up with that took different paths, who ended up going to prison,’ he tells Time Out on a break from rehearsals. ‘These are people that had such potential, but due to the environment they just couldn’t pull out of it.’ How has the show informed his own ideas on the subject? ‘The wonderful thing about Blood Brothers is that in so many different scenes you can see how Eddie could have quite easily been Mickey and Mickey could have been Eddie,’ says Hammersley.
Rob Wilshaw, who plays the upper-class Eddie, has another take. ‘Although Mickey’s a completely different character to me, the way he acts informs how I know that I shouldn’t act,’ he muses.
Given that Blood Brothers is rooted in high concepts and even higher drama, isn’t it a little strange that its players should be forever bursting into song? Payton agrees that marrying drama and song can be ‘tricky’, but maintains the music has as much of a place in the story as the dialogue. ‘I feel that, especially with something like Blood Brothers, a song is an extension of a feeling that a character has,’ he argues. ‘The music in this is ideal for the characters. It’s part-folk with a bit of rock, and Willy Russell paints wonderful imagery as a lyricist as well as a composer.’
With big ideas, big musical numbers and a big reputation, Blood Brothers is no small event in Dubai. The theatre circuit here is limited to a handful of venues, so it’s a treat for the city to host such a renowned classic. Payton urges us to consider the invitation. ‘A great mystery doesn’t give you the answers,’ he tells us. ‘What I love about this musical is that Willy Russell just sets the play in motion and says, “Come with us on this story and see what you make of it.”’
Dhs189. January 25-February 6 at the First Group Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah. No performance on January 31. All evening performances at 7.30pm. Matinees: January 26, 28 and February 2 at 1pm, February 5 at 2pm. See www.timeouttickets.com or call 800 4669. Visit the official show website at www.seebloodbrothers.com for more information.
It’s been on the West End for 22 years and ran for 840 performances on Broadway. And a famous show attracts famous names…
Russell Crowe played Mickey in the first Australian production of Blood Brothers in 1988.
Four of the Nolan sisters (Linda, Bernie, Denise and Maureen) have played Mrs Johnstone.
Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm (Sporty) plays Mrs Johnstone in the current London show.