A mawkish melodrama steeped in Thatcher-era class consciousness and saddled with a thin, repetitive score, this bit of British treacle was beloved enough at home to become the third longest-running musical in West End history, with a 24-year span. Willy Russell (Educating Rita), responsible for book, music and lyrics, penned a tale of twin brothers separated at birth, one to remain impoverished in welfare housing with his seven other siblings and struggling single mother, Mrs. Johnstone. The other is reluctantly given up to Mrs. Johnstone’s childless employer, with a promise the boys should never be told of their connection.
Naturally for a story as schematic as this, the boys are drawn to each other despite their parents’ efforts to keep them apart and become instant best friends. We watch as they grow from young children into their late teens, when economic circumstances begin to pull them inexorably in opposite directions but toward the tragic end that’s thuddingly foreshadowed throughout. (The show actually opens with a tableau of the pair’s simultaneous death—confirmed by a moralizing narrator, played here by Jordan Phelps, who speaks in menacing couplets. The rest of the action is told in flashback.)
The didactic dichotomy of Russell’s storytelling isn’t exactly made up for by his music, which is gentler and more interesting than many of the bombastic British scores of the ’80s but is stretched beyond its capacity. (Russell must have worn out his rhyming dictionary for a recurring motif that repeats the name “Marilyn Monroe” somewhere just shy of 500 times.)
Still, Theo Ubique’s production, which places us in the middle of the middling action, might be worth seeing just for the central performances by three young actors who are all new to me. Cody Jolly and Charlie Mann, tasked with embodying the brothers from wee schoolboys to adulthood, both find nuances in their portrayals of different ages. And as Mrs. Johnstone, who’s almost more of the piece’s focus than the boys, Kyrie Anderson sings powerfully and is magnetic in her weariness and worry. Much of Russell’s work feels inessential, but this mother’s a necessity.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre. By Willy Russell. Directed by Fred Anzevino. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.