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Newcastle Herald

home and away and home again

Date: 28/05/1998
Words: 1081
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: Go
Page: 1
IT has been three years since Matthew Lilley filmed his last episode of Home and Away but the Newcastle-born actor still gets fan mail from around the world.

One or two letters a month catch up with him, asking what he is doing and pleading with him to return to the soap opera.

Lilley, though, isn't keen to do another long-running stint in a television series.

Twelve months in 1994-95 playing nice-guy handyman Rob Storey in Home and Away was enough for him.

'It's nice to get recognition for the work you do but it would be nice to break from that mould,' he said.

This is one reason why the 27-year-old from North Lambton is back in Newcastle rehearsing the musical Blood Brothers.

He hasn't done a large-scale musical before. The closest was a Christmas pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, in the Scottish city Inverness in 1995. (He played hero Jack.)

Another reason he is working in his home town is that Blood Brothers is the inaugural production of the Newcastle Theatre Company, set up last year in an attempt to keep the professional flag flying in the wake of the Hunter Valley Theatre Company's latest withdrawal from production.

Blood Brothers , written by Willy Russell, author of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, opens at the Mission Theatre on Wednesday.

'We need a professional theatre company in Newcastle,' Lilley said.

'There are so many good people who come out of Newcastle who have to leave the city because there are no opportunities for them to work here.'

Lilley, who is based in Sydney, actually returned to Newcastle to make his professional debut in early 1993 after graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art's acting course.

He appeared in HVTC's Macbeth and Money and Friends, also touring in the latter to regional NSW and Victoria.

Since then, however, he's worked out of Sydney or overseas.

After his year-long stint in Home and Away he decided to take a holiday in Britain and Europe.

But getting away from it all proved to be impossible with his Home and Away episodes screening on European TV.

Europeans, particularly those in Britain, are crazy about Australian soaps.

So Lilley found himself being approached in cities such as Rome by British tourists and asked to pose with them for photographs.

In the end, he made it a working holiday which kept him in Britain for 18 months.

At that time, his fan mail was so heavy that he found it impossible to reply to all the letters.

'It was funny,' he said. 'Letters were sent from the United Kingdom to Australia and eventually made their way back to me.

'I'd often find that the letters came from just down the road from where I was living or working.'

Since his return to Australia in 1996, Lilley has worked in theatre, television and short films.

He's a director of Tamarama Rock Surfers, a company formed by young actors with the intention of staging plays that are more cutting edge than works staged by the large, mainstream companies.

One of the shows the group put on was Willy Russell's Stags and Hens, a story set in the male and female toilets of a Liverpool dance hall (hence the title) where a bride and groom to-be have coincidentally been brought for their night out before the wedding.

While Stags and Hens is not a musical, Lilley said there were a lot of similarities between it and the later Blood Brothers.

Willy Russell was good at drawing working-class people and showing class barriers.

'He's really good at fleshing out the characters. He doesn't waste words and they're obviously based on people he grew up with.'

Blood Brothers is the story of twin boys who are separated at birth.

Their cleaner mother, Mrs Johnstone, has five other children and has been deserted by her husband just before her accouchement.

When her wealthy and childless employers, Mr and Mrs Lyons, offer her a large amount to let them adopt one of the boys, she reluctantly agrees.

The twins aren't identical, so when they meet as children they don't recognise each other.

The two become the best of friends, a friendship which continues through adulthood. But fate, and the action of one of the mothers who's aware of the blood relationship, drives a wedge between them.

The songs Russell uses to help tell the story, including Marilyn Monroe, Kids Games and Shoes Upon the Table, invariably have audiences leaving the theatre humming them.

Matthew Lilley plays Eddie, the boy who grows up in well-to-do circumstances, with Anthony McEwen as his working-class twin, Mickey.

The cast also includes Lisa Kinna (a recently returned Novocastrian who has performed with Sydney Theatre Company) as Mrs Johnstone, Jenny Newman and Scott Rankin as Eddie's adoptive parents, Tim Blundell as the narrator and Wendy Ratcliffe, Andrew Jones, Ty Hamilton, Priscilla Levy, Amy Nelson and Trent Wilson.

Like Blood Brothers, this production has had its twists of fate.

Anthony McEwen stepped into Mickey's role when another actor had to pull out and that led to the renewal of an old friendship with Matthew Lilley.

'We went through school together, usually in the same class,' Lilley said.

'When we finished high school (St Francis Xavier at Hamilton) we went along together to enrol as members of Newcastle Repertory Club.'

Blood Brothers is a largely unknown quantity in Newcastle, although Novocastrians who saw a touring Australian production in Sydney in 1994 were struck by the emotional power of the piece. The fact that it is still running in London after 10 years is another sign of its audience appeal.

Director Don McEwen believes it will have a strong pull for Newcastle theatregoers because it is set in an industrial city - Liverpool - not unlike their own.

Matthew Lilley agrees.

'There's definite relevance for Newcastle. If you've grown up in a working-class town you'll relate to the themes in a way that people in Sydney mightn't be able to do.'

Blood Brothers plays at the Mission Theatre, in King Street, Newcastle,

from June 3 to July 4.

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