Theatre Review: Blood Runs Deep, Unity Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Unity Theatre

Written By: Chris Daley

Format: Play

Genre: Drama

Date: October 11 2018

Location: Unity Theatre, Liverpool

“Single mother Karen Richards is on the run with her unsuspecting son, praying she can hide their chilling family secret and live a normal life. But when an unwelcome visitor arrives at her home, the truth catches up with her, resulting in terrifying consequences.”

I had little or no knowledge of this play before coming to see it. Sometimes I feel it’s better that way. You don’t have any expectations of what a piece should or shouldn’t be. Therefore, I didn’t know what to expect other than it was “guaranteed to have audiences literally on the edge of their seats”. Being a person that takes severe umbrage with anyone who uses the word “literally” incorrectly, I was looking forward to being gripped.

I have to say that initially I had a few issues with grasping some of the fundamentals. Our first glimpse into this domestic situation depicts Jake (Brandon McCaffrey) and his girlfriend Zoe (Alice Merivale) arriving home. Both are in school uniform, yet both seem far too old to still be in full-time education. We hear later on that Karen (Emma Vaudrey) has been on the run with Jake for 19 years, and that he is in fact 18 years old. The piece does make some effort to establish its period credentials with a distinctly 90’s TV and video combo. Yet we don’t establish firmly until late on in the second act that this is indeed 1995, and I wish that’d been made clearer earlier on as I was struggling to work out when the play was set rather than listening to the dialogue.

However, once we settle in, the premise and direction becomes clear. Jake and his drug-fuelled girlfriend Zoe are both obsessed with serial killers, bordering on the verge of infatuation with Zoe. Jake’s mother Karen has ironically been running from her past of being the lover of a notorious serial killer Nigel, who is now in prison for the murders of five women. Can you see where this is going? Yes, Nigel turns out to be Jake’s father, which is confirmed with the introduction of Greg (John Schumacher), Jake’s uncle, returning to announce that his serial killer brother has died in prison. On learning the knowledge of his parentage, Jake’s world begins to unravel up to the point of the interval, where Jake seems to lose control completely with his girlfriend Zoe.

At this point I have to say I was gripped and, oh yes, LITERALLY on the edge of my seat. There seemed to be a number of ideas going on here, most interestingly – is there something hereditary or genetic about being a serial killer? Will Jake turn as bad as his notorious father? One of the most intriguing notions seemed to be whether the act of learning who he was, turned him into something worse. Whether finding out his dad was a serial killer pushed him over the edge and in fact completed the circle and had turned him into the very thing he seems to have been obsessed with since a young age. Also, there was enough mystery about Greg’s motives as to why he was really here to keep me interested into the second act.

The play had spent the entire first acted building up this picture of a dissatisfied young adult being pushed over the edge by a dramatic discovery, a fragile alcoholic mother struggling with the truth of her past, and the safety of her son and mysterious visitor whose motives and true background were unclear. With the possible death of Zoe having occurred, I thought I had the second act figured out in terms of how would these three unstable people deal with this new trauma in real time and who would break first. I was looking forward to seeing this. Sadly, this is not what I got.

The second act, I have to say, felt very disjointed, almost like various set pieces not necessarily connected together properly. There never seemed to be any of the depth of possibility that was teased in the first act. Jake is disgusted with himself for what he’s done to Zoe, but at the same time seems to be on the edge of breaking again. Zoe, on the other hand, swings drastically from being horrified and then sexually aroused by these violent acts. And Greg seemed to be here out of a long-lost love for Karen. At one point, I even hoped that Greg would turn out to be Nigel himself and there’d been some identical twin switch done in prison.

The real disappointment came in the final fifteen minutes when, after spending so long in the first act establishing the possibilities and mystery of these characters, we have so much plot thrown at us. Jake leaves, and Zoe becomes pregnant with his child. We hear one side of a distressed phone conversation involving Jake. Greg and Karen (now a couple) have a major fight forcing Greg to leave when we discover that Zoe’s body has been found nearby, culminating in Karen overdosing on pills to presumably force a suicide.

Here’s the thing. At the interval, I thought I had the themes and ideas figured out and knew where it was going. At the end, I had no idea what the play was really about, especially with so many plot developments and major reveals coming so late on. Maybe this is due to my lack of understanding, who knows. But to me, it felt like it went off in too many different directions and that if the narrative had stayed a bit more central to how it started, I would have felt much more satisfied at the end. It tries to go off on too many tangents without the satisfied completion of any of them to their full.

In terms of the performances, I was very impressed. Emma Vaudrey gives a suitably bleak and beaten-down performance of a single mother descending into alcoholism due to a troubled past. Brandon McCaffrey goes from a teenager filled with angst and distain to a young man whose world is rocked by the knowledge of who he is or worse what he might become. Alice Merivale is brilliant as the slightly unhinged but inquisitive young girl whose young existence has also been shaped by young trauma. My favourite scene of the whole production is when she casually talks about her abuse by her father in such a matter of fact tone. Fantastic. And for me, John Schumacher completes a very worthy cast. Ironically for a character we probably know the least about, I never questioned any part of his performance. His natural ability on stage is effortless to the stage where I could watch him pottering around that flat, doing the dishes and finishing his crossword all day.

All in all, I did enjoy myself. Margaret Connell goes to some interesting lengths in her direction in order to ensure we feel just the right amount of tension when we need to and really does get the best out of four very talented actors. However, I just wish there’d been a more defined payoff in the second act. This could have been so much more interesting, but instead just fell a little bit flat. Neither one thing nor the other. Overall, my overriding feelings towards Blood Runs Deep could be described as being by and large impressed, but frustrated and a little bit dissatisfied.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 – Good