Comedy tomorrow - tragedy tonight

Review by David Munro

Blood Brothers Richmond Theatre (to October 19, 2002)

Sadly Solo Joe Cardiff Festival

TWO musicals are doing the rounds, both of which end in mayhem and murder, and I don't mean the plot resolution, which in each case destroys the earlier promises of the plays.

One is Sadly Solo Joe, last week at Greenwich, and now at the Festival of Musicals in Cardiff. The other is a tour of the unstoppable (so it would seem) Blood Brothers at the Richmond Theatre, until October 19.

Sadly Solo Joe features Clive Rowe, a black actor who has proved there is no colour bar to taking over and excelling in roles written for Caucasians (Mr. Snow - Carousel and Bobby - Company). Here, he plays a black loser in New York who starts and finishes the play alone through a plot device, which makes a mockery of an otherwise delightful and fulfilling piece.

The first act and the first half of the second act are amusing and tuneful. Clever lyrics, funny situations and a cast who, to me, have no flaw.

Then, instead of resolving the plot in the way which has already been signalled, the writer, Paul Ryan, shirks the issue and plunges into ill-considered and unbelievable comedy noir - as though Webster had written Carry on Killing. This volte-farce does no favours to the talented cast supporting Mr Rowe's magnificent Joe (Vivien Parry, Simon Grieff and Jackie Morrison) nor to the audience.

I believe that Mr Ryan has a talent, which I hope we will see, properly used, in his next musical. We certainly need someone like him who can write amusing dialogue and set up situations which are funny and touching. But I trust that next time he will not insult the audience's intelligence and produce another mish-mash like the last 20 minutes or so of Sadly Solo Joe.

I concur that the plot demands that Joe be left alone at the end of the evening, that is the point of the title and the basic situation of the character, but please dismiss your supporting cast next time to pastures new - not green as you do in this musical.

Peter Readman's music is tuneful, using rock idioms with intelligence rather than cacophony and the supporting cast are convincing in their roles as Joe's girl friend (Vivien Parry), best friend (Simon Grieff) and blind date (Jackie Morrison) - all of whom deserve a better fate than they get considering the zest and talent they bring to their parts.

My plot reservations expressed above apply equally to Blood Brothers, although by now the success of the current London run makes me a voice in the wilderness.

I am not averse to an unhappy ending, far from it, but, as you will gather, I feel endings should arise naturally out of the plot and not be grafted on to it.

Blood Brothers
falls between two stools; social commentary and outright melodrama and does not sit happily on either. As one would expect of Willy Russell, the dialogue and characterisations are good but the plot is driven forward by a series of coincidences which leaving you gasping at the author's audacity.

Originally a one-hour play written for a Liverpool theatre group, the conversion into a musical is only partially successful and, to me, what works as a play does not always translate well to the musical stage. If melodrama is wanted, treat it as such (to wit Sweeney Todd) but a social conscience seems unreal when grafted on, which Russell attempts to do in Blood Brothers.

The performances at least give, to paraphrase W.S.Gilbert, verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Jaqui Charlesworth as mother to the bloody brothers is a worthy successor to a role played in the past by a line of dramatic divas, which include Barbara Dickson (the originator of the past), Vikki Carr in the first revival and the late Stephanie Lawrence, who played it triumphantly in New York and opened the current production at the Phoenix.

Oliver Ford and Philip Maggs achieve in making the relationship between the eponymous brothers touching and convincing, emphasising the tragedy of their deaths. Nikki Davis-Jones makes a charming transition from gawky schoolgirl to tormented adult; whilst in the role of adoptive mother to one of the brothers, Nicola Rutherford successfully fleshes out an under-written and thankless part. Adam Watkiss gives the Narrator charm and a fine singing voice.

Space prevents me from singling out any more of this excellent cast save to say that they, with the principals, do their producer and co-director, Bill Kenwright, proud as does Andy Walmsleys's economical but effective settings.

All in all (plot aside) a most satisfying evening's entertainment which should not be missed - after all you are getting West End performances for reasonably priced tickets - who could ask for anything more?

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Richmond Theatre website...