The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Stephanie Lawrence and Joanna Munro on playing Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons in Willy Russell's "Blood Brothers"

I don't think you can say Mrs. Johnstone is all good and Mrs. Lyons is all bad. If you do that it becomes like a panto and you've got the audience hissing and cheering.

Stephanie Lawrence has played Mrs. Johnstone at the Phoenix Theatre and on Broadway, six days a week for four years with scarcely a break. Jonanna Munro has been in Blood Brothers twice as both Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons. She has played Mrs. Lyons and understudied for Mrs. Johnstone simultaneously. It has not been unknown for her to play one part in the afternoon and the other part in the evening.

Joanna
The difference between the two mothers is very real and they have a common bond, which is that they both love children. That is terribly important. People tend to think of Mrs. Lyons is being a 'baddie' but she is not. She is a person who makes a big mistake because she loves children. She is desperate for a baby and she thinks by helping out this woman who has too many children, she is doing the right thing. She thinks she will be providing herself and her husband who cannot have children with something which is going to make their marriage happier and richer. She is going to give a child a wonderful home, and she does it for what she considers to be the best reasons. But, as we know, it turns out wrong, because jealousy and guilt rear their ugly heads. Mrs. Lyons is not vicious. She's desperate. The way I approach the plot is through love. I think you have to do that.
Stephanie
You have to give the audience a problem. I don't think, you can say Mrs. Johnstone is all good, and Mrs. Lyons is all bad. If you do that it becomes like a panto and you've got the audience hissing and cheering.
Joanna
The point is Mrs. Lyons is a woman who worships her husband, adores him and is desperate to give him a child. She does this by wrongly taking a child and loving that child beyond reason. Any mother will tell you. You would kill for your child. It does turn Mrs. Lyons mad, and she does go for Mrs. Johnstone with a knife, but it is not a calculated move.
Stephanie
I think that's what the equaliser is between the two mothers. They would both kill for their kids. They are side by side, both mothers. When Mrs. Lyons goes for the knife she thinks she is protecting her son from finding out the truth. It is not a calculated move. She doesn't go to the house to kill her. In fact, she doesn't know what she will find there. All she sees is the boys coming from a house and she thinks, ‘This is the end. My child is going to be taken from me.'
Joanna
It's at that moment she goes off the wall, but I don't play her as a mad woman. I play her as distraught and I try to portray the pain. The madness comes out of jealousy and grief and pain. Anyone who's lost anybody or who has been in this kind of emotional situation knows the terrifying madness. Sanity goes out the window and what is left is grief and passion. Jealousy is most corrupting of all emotions. It can poison every thought and every moment. Every time I play the part the emotion hits me and every time it comes as a surprise because when we hit that scene we never know what's going to happen.
Stephanie
You see we know each other so well and we work together so well we can go do a scene like that without quite knowing where it's going to go. So every night it's different.
Joanna
The last scene when she betrays the secret is the awful thing. Every night, when Mickey turns back and I look into his eyes it makes me feel: 'What have I done?'
Stephanie
Why does she do it?
Joanna
It's the jealousy. She wants to break those boys up so that she can break the bond, so that she can have her sons back. In order to do that she has to prove to Mickey that Eddie is no friend. 'Look at what he's doing with your wife.'
Stephanie
I've played Mrs. Johnstone here and in the States and the reception is always the same. As long as we're doing a good show, we get a standing ovation. I believe in the class implications of this play, because I grew up in and around the working class. I don't entirely believe that your status in life depends on the class you are born into. What is more important is the effect of grinding poverty. But even that doesn't mean you cannot become something special. Mrs. Johnstone was trapped because of the children. Her husband walked out on her and she loved them and had to look after them. If it was me, I don't think I would be so trapped. I can put myself in her shoes, but with me it wouldn't be so gray. I don't think she's a weak woman. She's a strong woman who puts her children before herself. She's a 'glad-and-sorry' mother. My parents came up the same way. My mother used to have the bailiffs at the front door and my father would be running out the back door. She used to call it 'glad-and-sorry' – glad that I've got it, sorry I have to pay for it. Of course, things got paid for in the end, but week by week. There's a lot of wishing in this play.
Joanna
And it's interesting it comes from both sides. We see the working-class mother working for the middle-class mother, and that is very quickly got rid of, the balance changes. As far as I'm concerned, at the start of Act Two Mrs. Johnstone is a person who is rich and has strength. She is the one who can stand there and say, 'Yes. I've achieved this through honesty and hard work.' She has this great love around her, whereas Mrs. Lyons has nothing except his terrible burden. Mrs. Johnstone has a richness of spirit that Mrs. Lyons craves. But the wishes come from both sides.
Stephanie
Mrs. Johnstone is a character who bounces back. She's had so many knocks that there is not much left you can sling at her. She has the money in her hand and she throws it away. She's not a sad character. She's a fighter and a winner. Think about it. She has a son who kills a man in an armed-robbery and we don't know what happens to him. She has another son, who does time for armed robbery and another son, who turns out to be a successful politician. And both of those two end up dead in front of her. But who knows, she might meet somebody absolutely terrific, and her life could change completely.
Joanna
I am exceedingly glad I don't have to play Mrs. Lyons as it was in the original play when she does the killing. In this one we have two bodies and three women grieving over the dead brothers.
Stephanie
Yes, Eddie goes off to university and becomes a councillor but what does he want out of life? He loses the one person he loves, Linda. He gives her to Mickey. Mickey has everything Eddie wants and Eddie has everything Mickey wants. It's the same with the mothers.
Joanna
Willy Russell writes beautifully for women. And yet he once apologised to me because he felt he hadn't done Mrs. Lyons justice. He said he hadn't enjoyed writing about her when she was successful and rich. I believe it's when Mrs. Lyons is falling apart that he enjoys the writing. I think that's why it's such a challenge.
Stephanie
It's got to be the hardest part in the show to play well.
Joanna
It's a swine.
Stephanie
I've got the songs and my part is straightforward, black and white.
Joanna
It is a nightmare. I don't want to do Mrs. Lyons a disservice by standing there and making out she is a Wicked Witch of the West.
Stephanie
There has to be sympathy for both of them.
Joanna
I never forget when I first did this with Steph in 1990. I was called to the stage door and outside there was this family with a little five-year-old weeping her eyes out. I said, ‘Did I frighten you?' And she sobbed out, 'Oh no, it wasn't your fault you couldn't have a baby. You mustn't think they died because of you. 'That's when it works. That means more to me than all the critics. But it is a burden carrying this part.
Stephanie
We mustn't forget the other woman in the play, Linda. In the text, when Mickey says he can't give up the tranquillisers, Linda's the person she turns to for help, both for herself and Mickey. He's the only person who knows them both equally. I don't for a moment believe she goes to Eddie out of love for herself.
Joanna
I've never felt that. She goes to him for help for both of them. I think her love for Mickey is so strong that I don't think that is a betrayal. Obviously there is an attraction, but there is no betrayal. I don't believe for one minute that Linda and Eddie made love. And that is the tragedy. If Mrs. Lyons hadn't told Mickey about what she had seen I think Eddie would've taken Linda in his arms and said, 'It's all right. We'll make this work. You go back home, and I'll come round later with a bottle of wine and we'll just sit down and talk.' But everyone can have their own views on it. That's what makes it so interesting.
Stephanie
Just like the brothers, the bond between the two mothers has to be strong. Emotionally, they are the same. At the end you take all their clothes off and they are just two women. They each have a womb. One can have children, and one can't.
Joanna
It's as simple as that. It's about being a woman, and that longing for a child. That's what I love about working with Steph. We almost have silent communication.
Stephanie
We both have very long but very different journeys in this play. We finish up miles away from where we started and I find that emotionally exhausting. You also become very attached to your songs.
Joanna
Once the show is in your blood. It never goes.