When We Were Brothers
The Underground, Bradford
“BOYS don’t cry,” might have been an alternative title for When We Were Brothers, given could the number of times that phrase is repeated throughout the one-hour play.
In this exploration of male mental health, it’s first uttered when the local bully sits on the chest of seven-year-old Danny (Levi Payne) and it's reprised when pre-adolescent Tommo (Philip D McQuillan) is at his grandfather’s funeral and his Uncle Tommy (“a bullying prick”) jeers at him for being upset. And it’s there when the two blood brothers make a code of conduct, on the list alongside “don’t hit girls.”
Those incidents, delivered in retrospective episodes, mark the milestones in the friendship between the two boys. The thoughtful and academic mixed-race Danny escapes from working-class Bradford to London as a computer science graduate and his experiences teach him emotional intelligence while Tommo, trapped in his home town as a labourer, becomes “cold and quiet” with barely contained rage.
His single mother Julie (Vanessa Pound), whose northern grit could have been taken straight from a kitchen-sink drama, can only watch helplessly from the sidelines as her love for her son is mixed with resentment as he becomes increasingly dependent on her following the departure of Danny and then of his girlfriend.
Playwright Ben Tagoe, fresh from writing for Coronation Street, weaves themes of racism, bullying, absent fathers and peer pressure into the narrative of this Freedom Studios production. This could make for heavy going but he knows when to ease the tension, as in one humorous scene where the 18-year-olds drop Ecstasy in a nightclub. It’s only under the influence that they feel sufficiently liberated from social constraints to awkwardly hug.
Staged in the stereotypically male environment of a pub, director Aisha Khan uses the physical confines to create an intensity shared with an audience in close proximity. We see every tensed muscle and, ultimately, share in the characters’ sense of hope.
Runs until May 5, box office: undergroundbradford.com
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