Review: When We Were Brothers, The Underground, Bradford

Philip D McQuillan and Levi Payne in When We Were Brothers.
Philip D McQuillan and Levi Payne in When We Were Brothers.
Have your say

It’s not an easy time to be a young man. With phrases such as ‘toxic masculinity’ being, unhelpfully, bandied about and the growing crisis in mental health – alarming figures suggest that suicide is one of the biggest killers of men under the age of 45 – it’s never been more important to confront and address these issues openly.

So Ben Tagoe’s new play, staged by Freedom Studios in an underground bar on Duke Street in Bradford, exploring the subjects of male friendship and mental health feels very timely. We meet Danny (Levi Payne) and Tommo (Philip D McQuillan) who have been friends since they were seven years old; now in their late twenties their lives have gone in quite different directions, but they have always had each other’s backs. The narrative, laced with some nice wry humour, moves along at a sprightly pace through their childhood, adolescence and coming of age as they navigate their friendship through life’s ups and downs; clearly very fond of each other while never quite able to express to each other the depth of that feeling.

Danny (Levi Payne) comes from a stable, happy family background; he’s clever, academic and clearly has a bright future ahead of him; this despite having to contend with the sickening racist attitudes of many of his peers. Tommo on the other hand has had a tougher upbringing with his loving, hard-working single mother Julie (Vanessa Pound). With a father who has been absent for most of Tommo’s life, the only older male role model available to him is his mother’s thuggish brother Trevor, a racist, sexist bully whose damaging advice is all about using your fists to settle arguments and denying your finer feelings including that cruel old cliché ‘boys aren’t supposed to cry’. All the hurt and anger Tommo has felt in his young life is channelled into violence and there comes a point when he is in deep trouble and the only person who can help is Danny.

While this is principally the young men’s story, Tagoe’s sensitive script also movingly explores Tommo’s mother Julie’s feelings very candidly too. Little more than a child herself when she became a parent, she wants a chance to finally live her own life too. The three actors all give moving, honest and utterly authentic performances and the piece is deftly directed by Aisha Khan who uses the intimacy of the unconventional space with great skill. While Tagoe’s script tackles the darker, trickier elements head on, this is ultimately an uplifting story of the importance and healing power of friendship.

To May 5.