When We Were Brothers


Bolton Octagon at the Venue Bar.

25 April 2018.

Bolton Octagon’s annual REVEAL Festival promises “original and exciting theatre” although it also offers the additional bonus of seeing performances in non-theatre venues across Bolton. So far I’ve perched on a bar stool to watch a performance in a pub and sat on a row of grand carved wooden benches within the town hall. I wasn’t planning to write reviews about either of the shows I saw but both When We Were Brothers and Trial impressed with good quality writing and strong performances, so here are some brief thoughts.

When We Were Brothers from Bradford-based Freedom Studios explores masculinity and friendship through the eyes of Danny and Tommo. They’re two lads, who forge a bond in childhood that endures into adult life and more tricky times. Ben Tagoe’s script is compact, focused and meaty. It effortlessly charts two friends having a laugh and getting into scrapes as they grow up before our eyes – evolving from children, through adolescence and then on to the world of work and partners. The story-telling and dialogue are perfectly judged, and Tagoe’s words are served well by the show’s three actors. Levi Payne’s shy, thoughtful Danny is taken under the wing of Philip D McQuillan’s cocky mini ‘hard man’ Tommo. Their performances artfully capture the developing nature of their relationship but also their diverging directions of travel. Payne’s Danny grows in confidence as his quiet studies pay off, while McQuillan’s Tommo finds himself increasingly stuck.

Vanessa Pound as Tommo’s mother Julie acts a central anchor, an observer, often reflecting back and setting the scene. Her plain speaking character also serves to demonstrate, how in comparison to the men who inhabit her life, she is much more able to talk about concerns, hopes and feelings.

Tagoe’s script covers a lot of ground in a short time, reflecting on what it means to be a man, racial discrimination, male violence, social mobility and mental health. Yet it is also rich with insightful detail. The loving single mum who desperately longs for her son to be happy for his sake, but also so she can let go and finally have her own life. A working class lad made good confronted by the privately schooled confidence and monied entitlement of his fellow university students. An ecstacy-fuelled moment of intimacy where Tommo struggles to find the words to reciprocate Danny’s declaration of brotherly love.

The play’s main setting within a pub, makes a bar seem a fitting venue in which to perform it. Yet it is also apt for other reasons. Although pubs are no longer the exclusive preserve of men, they remain one of the few places where they come together as friends to relax. Over a drink, they may joke and banter, but in that environment, how likely are they talk of feelings and worries? Where’s their space to do that?

There’s no frills to the production, Aisha Khan’s direction keeps things deliberately unfussy. Within the intimate space, the glare of the one big spotlight sometimes seems deliberately intense. There’s a rare authenticity to the dialogue and performances. Beneath its easy-going warmth and humour, When We Were Brothers is deceptively subtle and deeply moving.

Bolton Octagon.

Freedom Studios.

You can read my thoughts on Monkeywood Theatre’s Trial here.


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