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Understanding Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers is a musical that was first performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983, winning a prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Musical in the same year. It was written by Willy Russell, a playwright and composer from Merseyside who often wrote about class struggles in Britain.

When Blood Brothers was written, Britain’s prime minister was Margaret Thatcher. She sought to overcome the country’s economic problems by closing down many industries that she saw as failing, including mining, car manufacturing, shipbuilding and the steel industry. Most of the workers in these industries were working class, and therefore these closures brought mass unemployment to people in this demographic.

Liverpool – where the musical is set – was particularly badly affected because the docklands were no longer used as the shipping and commercial hub they once were. Almost 20% of the city’s adults were out of work, double the national average. This brought resultant problems with crime and drug abuse.

Plot Synopsis

  1. Twin boys, Mickey and Edward, are separated from birth. Mickey stays with his biological mother, Mrs Johnstone, in their deprived and chaotic inner city slum household, while Edward is adopted (in secret) by the wealthier Mrs Lyons.
  1. Despite their different backgrounds, the boys become friends after a chance meeting.
  1. In fear of this growing friendship, Mrs Lyons moves the family to the countryside. Shortly afterwards, the Johnstones are rehoused nearby.
  1. Edward and Mickey rekindle their friendship. Both are fond of Linda, Mickey’s neighbour. However, Edward encourages Mickey to pursue a relationship with her.
  1. While Edward goes to university, Mickey and Linda marry and have a child. However, their happiness is curtailed when Mickey is made unemployed.
  1. In desperation, Mickey helps his brother with a robbery, but is caught and jailed. He falls into depression and drug addiction.
  1. Edward, now an influential city councillor, helps Mickey and Linda with a council house and a job for Mickey. He and Linda have a “light romance”, which Mickey later finds out about.
  1. In a jealous rage, Mickey confronts Edward with a gun. Mrs Johnstone reveals that they are twins. In an emotional state, Mickey accidentally shoots Edward, before being killed himself.

Structure

The musical is divided into two acts:

  • The first act takes place in an inner-city slum of Liverpool (where Mickey lives), and its more affluent area nearby (where Edward lives). The action goes from Mrs Johnstone describing her youth and having her children, up until the twins are seven years old.
  • The second act takes place in the countryside and begins when the boys are fourteen years old. It follows their growing up into adulthood.

Language

From their first meeting, we see a contrast in the language of Mickey and Edward, representing the different classes in which they have been brought up:

  • Mickey speaks with a distinct working-class Liverpudlian accent and dialect, as seen in the line: “Cos, if our Sammy gives y’ a sweet he’s usually weed on it first.”
  • Edward speaks in Standard English with a more middle-class dialect: “Oh, that sounds like super fun.”

Edward is impressed by Mickey’s casual use of swearing, as in the line “Pissed off. You hate smashing things, don’t you?”, and admits to having never heard of “the ‘F’ word.” This difference in their language shows a street-smart quality in Mickey that Edward is lacking, but a middle-class sensibility in Edward that will allow him access to many opportunities in life denied to Mickey.

Setting

  • The main settings are Mickey’s and Edward’s houses. The audience is shown the “interior of the Lyons’ comfortable home” but only the “exterior of the Johnstone home.”
  • The space in between the two houses represents the streets and the park – communal areas where the boys meet, despite their contrasting home settings.
  • The staging does not change significantly in the second act when the action moves from Liverpool to the countryside.

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