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Despite how many schools insist that pupils read plays, a play is not a written work, it is intended for performance. However, the factors involved in putting on a performance are many and varied and part of the magic of theatre is that no two shows will be identical. For this reason, although a review may give a good indication of the experience of a show, it's no reliable guideline for how well the show will be received by future audiences. It is, therefore, a valid exercise to review the text objectively.
Willy Russell's Blood Brothers is excellent when performed well on stage. Whilst reading the play will leave a more shallow impression, if it's the only exposure you're likely to get then it's worth the effort to read it. Over the last decade or two it has been accepted as an exam text and studied at GCSE level and it stands up well to scrutiny.
The basic tale is that of twin brothers and their mother who is forced through poverty to give away one of the sons. We see the growth of the boys and how their paths cross, all the time shrouded in superstition and fear. From the moment she gives up Edward, Mrs Johnstone regrets it but realises, too late, that she has sealed an undesirable fate
for the boys when she is told:
"You do know what they say about twins, separated at birth? They say that if either twin ever learns he was once one of a pair they shall both immediately die."
And while this might sound ridiculously dramatic, the story is pulled off with panache and intelligence. It's never directly stated that the superstition is valid, but that doesn't stop characters living in fear of it. The tale addresses differences between social classes - whilst Mickey is threatened over vandalism the same policeman laughs at the event, terming it a boyish prank when addressing Edward's adoptive family. Mickey has a life of drudgery ahead of him, hit hard by unemployment and a lack of prospects, while Edward's future is based on a university education and life in local council. Despite the obvious humour and the dramatic turns of the story, the class commentary shows through but never so much as to detract from the story. It's a story of the downfall of a number of characters, the boys meeting an untimely end, the mother who gave them up living in constant turmoil and regret and the adoptive mother going slowly mad. Those surrounding them are dragged down as they become a part of the story and dramatics abound.
It's not all gloom and despair, though. Another theme that recurs throughout the play is that of hope and dreams. Mrs Johnstone see parallels in her life with Marilyn Monroe and dreams about her son being brought up in what seems to her to be a palace. The boys, meanwhile, have their own dreams - Mickey wants to be like his older brother, Sammy ("he's got two worms and a catapult and he's built an underground den"), and he wants the abundance of sweets and knowledge he knows Edward has. Edward, meanwhile, dreams of a life with a girl like Linda - but Linda is Mickey's girlfriend. Simple things, realistic little details, and they each build a rounded character that an audience can readily identify with.
In opposition to this cast of sympathetic characters stands the Narrator, a dark figure with harsh words that echo over and over the bad decision the boys' mother made. Some of the most dramatic pieces belong to the Narrator, a shadowy bogeyman or devil who stands on the outskirts stepping into view as the bearer of bad news time and again.
These themes are made powerful by a wonderful soundtrack, score and lyrics also by Willy Russell. The words alone are quite flat and it's only with the music that the story will really begin to come to life. There are several versions of the soundtrack publicly available and I'd recommend reading the text in conjunction with one of the recordings (my own preference is for the 1988 cast version). The tunes reappear and give non textual clues to the atmosphere and what is coming next.
The whole tale is a tight and well written one, carefully structured (we see the closing scene at the beginning of the play, repeated at the end with the finale chorus) for a great effect. The sets are clever, there is no curtain down for a location change, everything happens in front of the audience, dynamically. It's full of energy and humour and the characters are played by the same people at age seven, sixteen and mid twenties, drawing in the audience and not letting go until the final devastating end. The play is ideally seen on stage first. As an interim or alternative measure the text can be read alone for an effective but less evocative experience of the story. Either way there is strong writing in there and the play deserves its continued worldwide acclaim. Well worth a read, but you'll be missing out on some great stuff if you leave it at that.