The musical opens with a prologue spoken by the Narrator. He starts with the end of the story, informing the audience that the two bodies on the stage are those of twin brothers who were separated at birth. He judges the mother as ‘so cruel’ for her role in their deaths.
The musical then goes back in time some 20 years. Mrs Johnstone is a struggling, lower-class housewife whose husband has abandoned her. She has 5 children and is pregnant with twins. She works as a cleaner for the wealthy Mrs Lyons who shockingly offers to take one of the twins and bring him up as her own as she herself was childless. Mrs Johnstone agrees but regrets her decision almost immediately. Mrs Lyons quickly fires Mrs Johnstone from her job as she feels threatened by the presence of the biological mother around her adopted child. She even bribes Mrs Johnstone with £50 to leave and narrator comments that they will be punished for their immorality.
The musical then jumps forward in time and Mickey is introduced at the age of seven. He idolises his older brother, Sammy, and enjoys playing street games, mostly involving toy gun-fighting. He is not allowed to play near the wealthy houses. Whilst sulking, he meets Edward and strikes a friendship with him, delighted that they share the same birthday. They don’t realise they are related and go through an elaborate ritual to become blood brothers. Despite being warned not to play with each other, they ignore their mothers’ instructions. They become a little trio with Linda, a lower-class neighbour. They get into trouble when a police officer catches them throwing rocks at house windows. Whilst the police officer is rude and threatening towards Mrs Johnstone, warning her she might lose custody of her children, he is quite respectful when he is with Mrs Lyons and downplays the situation as a childish prank. Mrs Lyons uses this incident as an excuse to persuade her husband to move away to the countryside so that Edward can get away from Mickey and his family. They end up moving to a large house on the outskirts of Skelmersdale.
Seven years later, both twins are 14 and in secondary school. The Johnstone family have been rehoused in Skelmersdale and the family is in a slightly more stable situation. Mickey and Linda fancy each other but Mickey is very shy about expressing himself. Sammy still gets into trouble at school and with the police. Mickey is suspended from school because of rudeness towards a teacher and similarly, Edward is also suspended from his private school for refusing to remove the locket given to him by Mrs Johnstone as a memento, much to Mrs Lyons dismay. Mickey and Edward find each other again and return to their old, close friendship. Mrs Lyons confronts Mrs Johnstone, accusing her of trying to steal Edward’s affection and tries to attack her with a kitchen knife but is stopped. She leaves the house calling Mrs Johnstone a witch.
Mickey, Edward and Linda are now back together again, enjoying teenage larks, scrapes and escapades. Eventually Mickey needs to start work and he finds employment in the local factory making cardboard boxes. Despite being secretly in love with Linda, Edward encourages Mickey to ask Linda out so she can be his girlfriend. Shortly after Edward leaves for university. Soon Linda falls pregnant and Mickey and Linda wed. Bad luck quickly follows and Mickey loses his job at the factory, like many working class people in the 1980’s. When Edward returns briefly from university over the holidays, Mickey cannot join him in their usual fun due to a lack of money. Mickey then pushes Edward away. When Edward sees Linda he confesses that he has always loved her, not realising that she is already married and pregnant with Mickey’s child.
Mickey is unsuccessful in all his efforts to find work. Eventually, he is persuaded by Sammy to help out with a robbery by being a lookout. Unfortunately the robbery goes badly wrong and Sammy kills a man. This leads to the brothers getting arrested. Mickey is sentenced to seven years in jail where he quickly falls into depression and becomes addicted to anti-depressants drugs. Even when Mickey is released from prison and despite Linda’s pleas, he cannot give them up. He becomes increasingly distant and Linda becomes lonely and frustrated. She secretly asks Edward to help them out as he is now a local town councillor. He helps them secure a new council home and a job for Mickey. However, Mickey is enraged when he finds out and pushes Linda away who goes to Edward for comfort. They are both quickly betrayed by Mrs Lyons who reveals the affair to Mickey. He then confronts Edward with a gun. Mrs Johnstone tries to intervene by revealing that they are twins but Mickey accidentally shoots Edward and the police then shoot Mickey dead.
The superstition made up by Mrs Lyons at the start of the musical has now come true but the narrator questions whether this tragedy is due to superstition or actually due to the gap between the rich and the poor.
Overture – Orchestra, Company and Narrator
“Marilyn Monroe” – Mrs. Johnstone and Full Company
“Marilyn Monroe” (Reprise ) – Mrs. Johnstone
“My Child” – Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons
“Easy Terms” – Mrs. Johnstone
“Shoes Upon the Table” – Narrator
“Easy Terms” (Reprise) – Mrs. Johnstone
“Kids’ Game” – Linda, Mickey and Ensemble
“Gypsies in the Wood” (Reprise of Shoes Upon the Table) Narrator
“Bright New Day” (Preview) – Mrs. Johnstone
“Long Sunday Afternoon” / “My Friend” – Mickey and Edward
“Bright New Day” – Mrs. Johnstone and Full Company
Entr’acte – Orchestral piece
“Marilyn Monroe [Reprise 2]” – Mrs. Johnstone and Full Company
“Secrets” – Narrator
“That Guy” – Mickey and Edward
“Shoes Upon the Table” (Reprise) – Narrator
“I’m Not Saying a Word” – Edward
“Miss Jones” – Mr Lyons, Miss Jones and Full Company
“Marilyn Monroe [Reprise 3]” – Mrs. Johnstone
“Light Romance” – Mrs. Johnstone
“Madman” – Narrator
“Tell Me It’s Not True” – Mrs. Johnstone and Full Company
- Mrs. Johnstone: This single mother works as Mrs. Lyons’ maid. When she finds out she is not only pregnant but pregnant with twins, she is convinced by her employer to give one of the babies away to Mrs. Lyons, since Mrs. Lyons cannot have babies of her own. Mrs. Johnstone has been left by her husband to single-handedly care for a family she cannot financially afford to support.
- Mickey: One of the twins is Mickey who is raised by Mrs. Johnstone in poverty. When he is old enough to play with the neighborhood kids, he becomes best friends with Eddie, not knowing they are siblings. Later Mickey (partially due to his serious financial needs) gets involved in a crime, and ends up serving serious time for being an accessory to murder.
- Eddie: Eddie is raised by Mrs. Lyons, not knowing he has been adopted. He ends up being at serious odds with her when Mrs. Lyons’s constant paranoia leads her to control him, telling him that he can’t hang out with his friends anymore (because she knows they might find out they are related). Eddie likes the same girl as his brother, but he lets Mickey be with Linda, choosing to go to college instead.
- Linda: This is the love interest of both brothers. Eddie likes Linda, but Mickey also likes her. In the end, Linda ends up with Mickey, pregnant and married.
- Sammy: Sammy is one of the several older brothers in the Johnstone home. He comes up late in the story when he offers Mickey a chance to score some extra cash by helping with an armed robbery. But the robbery goes wrong and Sammy murders someone.
- Mrs. Lyons: Mrs. Lyons is a wealthy woman whose husband is always away on business. She discovers that her maid, Mrs. Johnstone, is pregnant with twins. She convinces the woman to give one of the boys away, and then she uses a hex to scare Mrs. Johnstone into keeping her word, saying that twins who are separated and reunite will die.
- Mr. Richard Lyons: A wealthy businessman, Mr. Lyons feels affection for his wife Mrs. Lyons and his son Edward, but is too oblivious and self-important to realize that Edward is in fact not his biological child.
- The Policemen: Figures of authority, policemen show up at various unlucky times throughout the musical.
- Miss Jones: The secretary to the Managing Director, Miss Jones transcribes the firing of many employees (including Mickey) before being fired himself.
- Donna Marie: One of Mrs. Johnstone’s older children. Donna Marie dropped Sammy on his head when he was a baby, and she too becomes a mother at a young age.
- Milkman: A character played by the Narrator, the Milkman threatens to stop delivering to Mrs. Johnstone unless she pays him. This is the final straw that convinces her to give up one of her twins.
- Gynecologist: Also played by the Narrator, the Gynecologist reveals to Mrs. Johnstone that she’s going to have twins.
- Catalogue Man: The Catalogue Man scolds Mrs. Johnstone for ordering gifts she can’t afford for her children.
- Finance Man: The Finance Man attempts to force an impoverished Mrs. Johnstone to pay her bills.
- Teachers: Generally figures of joyless oppression, one teacher tries to force Edward to remove his locket, while another mocks Mickey for being bored in school. Like the policemen, they symbolize authority.
- Neighborhood Children: Friends of Mickey and Linda growing up. The neighborhood children enjoy playing games about war, guns, and violence.
- Managing Director: Another figure of uncaring authority, the managing director fires hundreds of employees (including his faithful secretary Miss Jones, and the luckless Mickey) without any feelings of guilt or remorse.
- Judge: The Judge sentences the juvenile delinquent Sammy, but is lenient on him because he finds Mrs. Johnstone attractive. Like many figures of authority in the play, he is hypocritical and dishonest.
- Conductor: The conductor drives the bus that the criminal Sammy tries to rob.
- Doctor: Employed at Mickey’s prison, the doctor prescribes him antidepressants, beginning his addiction.
- Warder: The warder takes Linda to visit Mickey while he’s in prison.
- Woman: A strange woman who greets Mickey at Edward’s former house after the Lyons family moves away.
- Neighbors: The Johnstones’ neighbors in Liverpool rejoice when they hear that the large, rowdy family is moving to the country.
City Councilors: The councilors, Edward’s colleagues, are horrified witnesses when Mickey guns Edward down in city hall (and is killed in turn by the police).
- Sarah: The young daughter of Mickey and Linda.
Willy Russell is a Liverpudlian, born in Whiston in 1947 from a working class family and an English dramatist best known for Educating Rita (1986). His father worked in a factory and his mother was a nurse and then in a warehouse. After he left school he became a hairdresser and took other odd jobs, such as a warehouseman. Being a hairdresser was, in his own admittance, “a job I didn’t understand and didn’t like,” and he began to write songs and sketches for the media because writing was the “only thing I felt I understood, felt that I could do.”
At age twenty he returned to college, and upon graduating, became a teacher in Toxteth. He paid for his schooling by working a contract job cleaning oil from girders above machinery. It was dangerous and he stayed only long enough to make his money.
Keep Your Eyes Down, his first play, which he wrote while training to become a teacher, was produced in 1971. John, Paul, George, Ringo…and Bert was incredibly popular, running for eight straight weeks at the Liverpool Everyman Theater; it won the Evening Standard and London Theatre Critic Award for best musical in 1974.
Educating Rita was first staged in 1980 and published in 1981. Shirley Valentine was staged in 1988, and both that play and Educating Rita were made into popular films that were nominated for Academy Awards.
Russell also writes for television and composes songs, such as the lyrics and score for Blood Brothers, (1986), a musical about twins separated at birth. His screenplays for film and his writing for television are quite prolific and diverse.
Russell published his first novel, The Wrong Boy, in 2000. He currently lives and works in Liverpool. In 1969 he married Anne (“Annie”) Seagroatt; they have three children.