Phoenix Theatre, Monday 16 June 2008
© 25 June 2008
Question what have
Answer, at some point in
This is one of those reviews where it may be appropriate for me to warn the reader that I intend to state my honest opinion, perhaps sometimes brutally so, (and tonight this show had several understudies on), so if you don’t like this sort of thing from an amateur reviewer you might be better off not reading it.
Going to see a big
The curtain opens on a scene in a morgue. Two actors enter and lie on slabs (one centre stage length up the stage, the other nearer the front is across the stage. The narrator, Craig Price, who always wears a suit, enters early in the proceedings. Gradually the other actors take their places. Most of the ensemble are dressed as police officers. Near the further slab huddled together stand Stephen Pallister and Amy O’Neil as Mr and Mrs Lyons. Meanwhile Louise Davidson takes her place mid-stage left, with her back to the audience. The only reason to realise she is the leading lady being the fact she is the one standing alone. The narrator delivers his opening lines, and at the key moment Mrs Johnstone turns to face the audience. It’s a key moment in the plot, Louise Davidson executes that ok, though with little of the authority that some leading ladies would give it. But let’s not judge her too hastily. Onto the opening number Marilyn Monroe, it’s Ms Davidson’s chance to take charge of the scene, nearly everyone else exits, and with this number take charge she does. She carries the number perfectly well, and seems to be a pretty convincing actress. She gets right into character, sings nicely, and moves well, particularly when executing a few ballroom dancing type steps. She holds the scene together, as the story progresses to there being too many kids and another on the way. For example, she comes across very convincingly pleading with an actor playing a milkman; to give her till the following week. Then into a dialogue scene at Mrs Lyons’ house, where despite having to deliver some otherwise unbelievable lines, she nevertheless succeeds in making the audience go along with it. There’s a feeling that we’ve got a safe pair of hands here, an actress who is going to steer the show in the right direction. She portrays the character as very practical, and down to earth, and even manages to be perfectly convincing when the actor playing the milkman reappears as the Doctor. On to the horror of finding it’s twins, and telling Mrs Lyons about it, again convincing. Meanwhile Amy O’Neil playing Mrs Lyons also comes across with conviction as an initially kindly but then scheming rich woman who will do anything to get a child. On persuading Mrs Johnstone to give up one of the children (and swear a pact on the bible) the pair duet My Child. This is very much a double act, with neither being dominant. I expect in some performances and productions, you would get Mrs Johnstone dominating the number (because some leading actresses have ways of dominating the stage when they are supposed to be singing duets). But it doesn’t really matter either way, and in fact making the two women very much equals in the song might actually be more effective plot-wise. Another moment early one which I found rather amusing was when Mrs Lyons put her new shoes on the table, and the result prompted her to say to her cleaning lady “Oh you’re superstitious”; To which Mrs Johnstone protests she is not... “but shoes on the table...” . This is actually totally convincing, if you’ve ever come across someone insisting “I’m totally not superstitious, although.....” (and made me think of one Dynamo on the TV documentary A Week In The West End – hmm I wonder if the fact that Louise has understudied the actress concerned, had anything to do with how convincingly she delivered this scene? probably not, but you never know).
A few screaming sound-effects later, has the twins born, and in a pram together, with Mrs Johnstone arriving home to find bailiffs removing the hire-purchase goods she hasn’t managed to pay for. Easy Terms this is one of Willy Russell’s better songs, which Louise Davidson sings with satisfactory feeling, as though she means it; I couldn’t help thinking there might be singer-actresses who’d make more of it. But it’s not a bad performance by any means, and it is a good song. It made a reasonable impression not least because the one which followed it (or rather was sandwiched in between it and a reprise), namely Shoes Upon The Table sung by the narrator, though more dramatic wasn’t as tuneful. Just before that however, Mrs Lyons arrives to collect one of the twins. This is a scene where I am aware that our ‘leading lady’ is slightly lacking in stage presence, since Amy O’Neil’s performance of choosing one of the babies dominates the action. But fortunately this does not harm the show. The scene still works perfectly well.
Having acquired another woman’s baby which she is determined to pass off as her own, Mrs Lyons then does exactly as you would expect, tries to make sure that Mrs Johnstone will have nothing to do with the child, not only by dismissing her from her employment, but also warning her of a superstition involving separated twins. Louise Davidson sings a bitter reprise of Easy Terms, and with no one else around to dominate her, she again holds the stage.
Children grow up; moving on seven nearly eight years in the plot enter Mickey, apparently played by Steven Palfreman (well that’s what it said in the programme, however a discussion thread on the Dress Circle messageboard suggests it might not have been);we soon have him being berated by his mother for having gone up near a certain posher part of town. Both act with complete conviction and really make the scene believable. Mrs Johnstone exits, and alone Mickey expresses his exasperation that he isn’t allowed to do the things “our Sammy” is because he’s only seven when in fact he’s nearly eight. Presently Eddie, played by Richard Reynard, enters. He is posh, and yet somehow he and Eddie are instantly drawn to each other. Eddie isn’t supposed to come down to this rough part of town. When they discover they were born on the same day they decide to become ‘Blood Brothers’. Presently Mrs Johnstone enters again, and on realising who Eddie is tells him to “Be off before the bogeyman gets you.”
Many of the ensemble enter, Kids Games performed by Sammy, Linda and Mickey along with most of the ensemble. Tonight, according to the slip in the programme Sammy is played by Andy Brady, whose name strangely does not appear in the programme. While Linda is played by Louise Clayton. With Amy O’Neil playing Mrs Lyons, for tonight’s performance Anna Sambrooks plays Donna-Marie (who also appears in this number and the accompanying scenes. All the performers do a splendid job of portraying kids, and look like they are having fun doing it. They are messing about with toy pistols and if someone gets shot without their fingers crossed then they have to play dead.
A while later Mickey and Linda go and fetch Eddie. Sammy has a real airgun, and Mickey knows where it’s hidden. The three play with the airgun. Neither Mickey or Eddie actually hit the target, but Linda, does twice, and the second time she does it bending over backwards, which rather makes one think of wantanyacicila (little straight shooter – herself immortalised in a 1940s musical) doesn’t it? Back home Mrs Lyons is horrified to discover where he’s been, the worrying makes her ill, and she begs her husband that they move to a new district out in the country. During these sequences the Narrator twice represses Shoes Upon The Table. A dramatic number, which I’m only surprised wasn’t called “the devil has got your number” since that lyric seems to occur a lot in it. Eddie comes to say goodbye to Mickey, when Mrs Johnstone opens the door at first she appears greatly annoyed he’s back, but on realising why, relents and comforts him, letting him set on the step in her arms. She sings to him Bright New Day (preview), which Louise Davidson sings very sweetly and tenderly, as a singer she is rather good at numbers requiring sweet simplicity (because she won’t overdo them). She asks him if he would like a photograph of Mickey, and gives him her own locket. Louise captures the tough yet tender heartedness of Mrs Johnstone perfectly, it’s a beautifully moving scene played with conviction by both of them. She calls Mickey to come and say goodbye, and when Eddie departs then comforts Mickey, with him sitting in the same position in her arms on the step. Louise handles the whole scene so well you wouldn’t have guessed from this scene that she is the understudy.
twin soliloquy sung by the two boys Long Sunday Afternoon is
performed well, and looks good visually.
Then the postman turns up. Mrs Johnstone is protesting (in a fine
Act 2 opens with Mrs Johnstone at home on the new estate, and another instalment of the song Marilyn Monroe. A few more years have passed. Mickey is now fourteen, and just discovering girls. Some of the others have married or moved away. Donna Marie has a child and another on the way (at which point Donna Marie walks past with a pram). While “Our Sammy burnt the school down”, Mrs Johnston continues to explain in song it wasn’t really his fault, if they will let kids play with magnesium. Louise Davidson puts a lot of conviction into this version of the song, as an actress she manages to sound like she really means it.
Mickey has to catch the bus to school, with Linda. The latter is now a boy-mad teenager in a mini-skirt. A startling contrast to Louise Clayton’s earlier characterisation as a tom-boy. And then Sammy threatens the bus conductor with a knife.
Eddie has problems at boarding school, the master takes offence at him wearing a locket and refusing to hand it over, and so suspends him. By contrast Mickey also gets himself suspended for not paying attention in geography (his too busy looking at Linda). Mrs Lyons is greatly annoyed that Eddie got into trouble and is horrified when he agrees to show her the locket. We begin to see just how insane her desire for a child will drive her...
A while later, coming home from school, Mickey takes Linda for a walk over the fields, where they encounter Eddie. A frustrated Linda, who can’t get Mickey to kiss her, exits in a huff. Leaving Mickey and Eddie to duet That Guy both thinking the other has better luck with girls. They decide to go to the cinema to see a racy film, but first drop by Mickey’s home. Mrs Johnstone on discovering what they are going to see, rather surprisingly doesn’t object. Somehow Louise Davidson succeeds in playing this scene with complete believability. After the film they encounter Linda, who has also just seen it, and then the three of them hang round together.
Somehow Mrs Lyons finds out, calls on Mrs Johnstone, and threatens her with a knife, which Mrs Johnstone manages to wrest from her. It’s a sharp dramatic scene, which tonight Amy O’Neil and Louise Davidson play with precision and conviction, making it very believable, and quite disturbing. A splendid performance from not one but two understudies!
The passage of time is indicated by the narrator singing another chunk of Shoes Upon The Table. By the time Mickey, Eddie and Linda are eighteen, Mickey has a job, at one of Mr Lyons’ factories, and Eddie is off to university. He sings to Linda I’m Not Saying A Word (maybe he loves her, but she’s Mickey’s girlfriend). Eddie persuades Mickey to finally tell Linda he loves her and kiss her, that lets the barriers down alright.
The next scene finds Mickey, about to depart for work, but first explaining to his mother that Linda is pregnant. Obviously he will marry Linda. He asks if they can live with his mother for the moment, she agrees. There’s a swift costume change for Louise Davidson, hastily taking off her apron to reveal a red dress, while Louise Clayton enters in bridal gown for a brief wedding scene. Miss Jones sung by Stephen Pallister, Anna Sambrooks and the ensemble finds various factory workers, including Mickey laid off. Needing money Mickey gets entangled with Sammy, a real shooter, and manages to get arrested for murder. A distraught Linda sinks to the ground. Louise Davidson manages to make an entrance from mid stage right so unremarkable and subtle for a moment I nearly mistook her one of the ensemble. It was only when she bent down to comfort Linda (Louise Clayton), that I realised it was the leading lady. However, after a moment or two she takes command of the scene and launches into the third instalment of Marilyn Monroe. By now this song is getting a bit tedious. Some singers have the ability to sing a telephone directory and make it interesting, unfortunately I don’t think Louise Davidson would be among them. However, she does hold the audiences’ attention.
Mickey, when released, is on anti-depressants. Mrs Johnstone and the Narrator duet Light Romance, a number which I can’t remember enough about to describe. Though I think it may have been the bit where they were both up on the gallery at the back of the stage. One ended up paying more attention to Louise Clayton and whoever was playing Mickey on the stage below. Then Mickey, discovering how Linda got them a home of their own and him a job goes crazy. The Narrator launches into Shoes Upon The Table/Madman. Mickey bursts in on a council meeting, with a gun. A stand-off between Mickey and Eddie. Two actors playing ARV Police position themselves at either corner of the foot of the stage. Louise Clayton (as Linda) enters mid stage right, but stays outside what is evidently meant to be the room. The tension is mounting, one sort of knows what the ending will be, but not how. Then a surprise! The most startling entrance Louise Davidson has made all evening, one that truly only a Leading Lady would make, from the corner of bottom stage left, through the auditorium. Almost before we see her she yells at Mickey not to shoot Eddie;. Mounts the steps onto the stage and reveals the truth, a loud burst of gunfire. Both Mickey and Eddie lie dead. Both Louises freeze (in horror). After what seems like quite some time, various other members of the company trickle on, when at last they are all assembled Louise Davidson leads them with one of the best known songs from the show, Tell Me It’s Not True; and being a decent actress makes it her own. Yes it’s been sung by many far greater singers, probably with more vocal prowess. But for the purposes of tonight’s production she does it well, and it’s certainly better than Jessica Martin’s performance of that song in Blame It On My Youth, mainly because Louise Davidson very sensibly doesn’t try to do anything too clever with it, she just sings it with naturalness and sincerity in whatever way is right for her. She’s very much in command of the scene as she puts her coat over the actor playing Mickey (it says Steven Palfreman in the programme) and then moves both boys’ hands so they are positioned clasping hands (like on the show’s poster), as the curtain falls.
It only remains for the whole cast to take their bows. They do this all together as a team in one long line (there’s no hierarchy here). However, Craig Price and Louise Davidson are very much centre of the line as they do it, and there is a slight sense that it is Louise who leads them all as the join hands to walk forward for a bow, which they do about three times, until the curtain falls for the last time.
Overall a very good team
effort from the whole cast. Sometimes in big West End shows, when you’ve
got understudies on it can pull down the whole performance of the cast, partly
because actors get used to acting opposite particular people and have their
performances fine-tuned to their fellow performers strengths. However tonight,
despite having four covers, this did not appear to be a problem. The show itself is a musical with a powerful
story. I was not exactly impressed by the lyrics, I mean they’re not a patch on
for example Eric Maschwitz’s, however his music is at least thankfully
better than say Gerad Presgavic. The band (David Rose, Rick
Finlay, Lewis Evans, Jeffrey Crampton, Nick Pentelow, Susanna
Halberds, Martin Etheridfe, and, Tony Wagstaff) under the
direction of Rod Edwards do a reasonable job, although there was one
moment when they drowned out the leading lady (were they trying to tell her to “Sing
out....”?). The ensemble of (according to the programme) Alastair
Brookshaw, Karl Greenwood, Alex Harland, Rob Hughes, Stephen
Pallister, Anna Smabrooks, and,
Talking of upholding
Given Louise Davidson’s excellent no nonsense acting, I can’t think why more use hasn’t been made of her talents in any forgotten musicals stagings. To date she has appeared in one of Ian Marshall Fisher’s shows, Something For The Boys (where she had a very minor role, and was totally overshadowed – but then given all the stellar performers in that show it was hard for anyone else to get a look in), and one of Stewart Nicholls’s shows, Zip Goes A Million (where her acting talents did have a good chance to flourish). Since these sort of stagings have a strong emphasis on the ‘books’ of the said musicals, wouldn’t she be an asset to them?
Most of this cast of Blood Brothers were
performers I had not seen before. I did once see Amy O’Neil play a
memorable and very likeable The Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods.
The only other performer I can recall seeing before on stage is Louise
Davidson, even so I’ve never seen her talents quite so severely put to the
test as they were tonight. When it comes to rising to a challenge, it’s good to
see just how capable an actress she really is. Now I know why she has
understudied so many major parts (she seems to be a safe pair of hands to hold
a show together). There should always be a place in the
in all I’m really glad to have witnessed this performance of Blood
Brothers, mainly because, even with four understudies on, all the
performances were of such a high acting standard. It’s good to know there are