“Lads don’t cry!” is the central idea tackled by Ben Tagoe’s play When We Were Brothers. Tagoe, who used to write for Coronation Street, is a playwright, director and co-artistic director of Freedom Studios, a Bradford-based theatre company. The venue is Bradford’s The Underground bar, and the audience sits with the actors as though they are part of the performance, not separated by a traditional theatre set-up.
The play is about two boys, Danny (Levi Payne) and Tommo (Philip McQuillian), who grew up together after becoming friends following a fight between Danny, admirably played by Payne, and another boy. After a blood pact, Danny and Tommo became like brothers, navigating masculinity together and learning how to act “manly” in a patriarchal society that forbids male sensitivity, fragility and weakness.
The play is deftly and wittily written and draws our attention to the difficulties faced by boys and men in our society: the pressure to hide fear and sadness, to show strength at all times. Making impressive use of the intimate space, the play oﬀers a moving insight into contemporary manhood and male friendship, while touching on other important concerns like racism and violence. Vanessa Pound is particularly convincing and moving in the role of the northern lonely mother and pub waitress, expressing conflicting feelings about her relationship with her son and her anxieties about him.
The play’s primary concern, though, is male mental health, and it does an admirable job of exploring the struggle against depression. Tommo’s agony, brilliantly and convincingly played by McQuillian, illuminates the importance of conversation and friendship in the face of mental illness – as the charity which supports the play, Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), reminds us, in 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male.
When We Were Brothers is short, only an hour long, which is not quite enough time to address all of the problems it raises in depth. Despite the artificial coverage of some issues, though, it remains a beautiful, touching, and heart-warming piece of theatre.