As Act One opens, Mrs. Johnstone laments in song, begging the narrator and audience to “tell me it’s not true.” The Narrator, meanwhile, introduces the audience to the story of the Johnstone brothers, twins separated at birth, who found out the story of their origins only moments before they died. There is a brief tableau, during which the audience witnesses Edward and Mickey’s deaths, after which the Narrator brings forth their mother, Mrs. Johnstone.
From the first moments of the play, the audience is intended to know that the narrative is going to end in tragedy. The figure of the Narrator will often return to remind us of the terrible doom of Mickey and Edward, creating a constant sense of fateful foreboding.
Mrs. Johnstone, a thirty-year-old woman who looks far older than her years, sings about her deadbeat husband. She remembers the days of their courtship, when he flattered her by saying that she was “sexier than Marilyn Monroe,” and took her dancing. Things went downhill, however, when Mrs. Johnstone got pregnant. The pair had a shotgun wedding, after which she quickly became pregnant again. By the time she was twenty-five, Mrs. Johnstone had seven children and was pregnant again. Her husband, she tells us, then left her for a woman “who looks a bit like Marilyn Monroe.”
Mrs. Johnstone sings about her past, emphasizing Russell’s theme of how difficult it is to escape choices and actions that occurred years ago. Mrs. Johnstone also introduces the important symbol of Marilyn Monroe. The doomed starlet will return many times over the course of the play, her steep decline mirroring the unfortunate circumstances faced by several characters, especially Mickey.
The Narrator, now playing a Milkman, rushes in to demand that Mrs. Johnstone pay him for the milk she’s ordered. She tells him that she can’t pay now, but that she needs the milk because she’s pregnant. The Milkman replies, “no money, no milk.” Mrs. Johnstone then listens as her children complain that they are hungry. She tries to calm them by listing all the food they’ll eat when she begins to earn money, and she tells them that one day they’ll all go dancing, just like Marilyn Monroe.
Russell begins illustrating the desperate economic situation in which Mrs. Johnstone has found herself. Too poor even to buy her children adequate food, she’s reduced to asking them to imagine meals instead. The Narrator, as we will see, is a physical character in the play, assuming different forms—but all of them ominous or bearing bad news.
The scene shifts, moving to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Lyons, where Mrs. Johnstone works as a cleaning lady. Mrs. Lyons enters with a parcel and greets Mrs. Johnstone, complaining about how big and empty the house feels—her husband, Mr. Lyons, is away on a nine-month business trip. As Mrs. Lyons unwraps her package, she laments the fact that she hasn’t had any children. She says that her husband is against adoption, but she believes that “an adopted child can become one’s own.” Mrs. Johnstone jokes that while Mrs. Lyons can’t have children, she can’t stop having them. As they speak, Mrs. Lyons puts the contents of her parcel—a pair of new shoes—on the table. Mrs. Johnstone immediately reacts with alarm. Deeply superstitious, she believes that shoes on the table mean bad luck. Mrs. Lyons is amused, but agrees to put the shoes away. Then she exits.
In an immediate contrast with the terrible conditions of Mrs. Johnstone’s home life, Russell now moves us to the grand mansion of the Lyons family. One of the main themes of the play will be how class and wealth affect one’s life—and Mrs. Lyons and Mrs. Johnstone live in totally different worlds because of their economic status. A second, equally important theme also appears in this passage: superstition, which will soon come to control the characters’ actions as the narrative progresses. Although Mrs. Lyons herself has not yet become superstitious, here she witnesses the power that this fear has on Mrs. Johnstone.
After Mrs. Lyons leaves, the Narrator enters. He lists various superstitions, from shoes on the table to spilling salt to breaking a mirror, creating a sense of foreboding for the audience. Mrs. Johnstone tries to reassure herself that she is not superstitious.
The Narrator’s frequent return ensures that the audience keeps the idea of superstition and bad omens in their minds, just as Mrs. Johnstone does.
The Narrator reenters, this time playing the Gynecologist. He listens to Mrs. Johnstone’s fetus’ heartbeat, and she tells him that she thinks she’s figured out a way to feed the new baby. She is appalled, however, when the doctor tells her that she is actually having twins.
Circumstances in Mrs. Johnstones’ life now start to spiral completely out of control. Russell critiques the class system of the UK, but only through a tragic story of individuals, not with any political language.
We return to Mrs. Lyons’ home, where the rich woman finds Mrs. Johnstone devastated by the idea of having two more children, even worrying that they will be taken away from her by the state. Mrs. Lyons is immediately intrigued—and the Narrator appears, commenting on how “quickly” Mrs. Lyons’ idea has been “planted.” As the Narrator exits, Mrs. Lyons begins to beg Mrs. Johnstone to give one of the twins to her. Mrs. Lyons realizes that Mrs. Johnstone is due right before Mr. Lyons gets home, meaning that she could pass off the pregnancy as her own. Excited, Mrs. Lyons pads her stomach with a pillow, but Mrs. Johnstone expresses disbelief that she’s actually serious. Mrs. Lyons tries to convince Mrs. Johnstone to agree to the scheme, even telling her that she’ll be able to see the child every day.
This moment is a pivotal one in the narrative, as the two women begin to discuss the idea of the fateful plan that will set all the play’s future events in motion. Already in this moment, we witness the dynamic that will soon come to dominate their relationship: Mrs. Johnstone is hesitant and wary, while Mrs. Lyons is all too excited to get her way, without any thought for the consequences. The plan is also rooted in lies—it’s not simply an adoption, but a deception on a fairly massive scale—and the Narrator will emphasize how these sins must be atoned for, even if it’s years later.
Mrs. Johnstone asks if Mrs. Lyons is really that desperate for a child. Mrs. Lyons responds in song, explaining how she constantly imagines a fantasy son, but that he always “fades away.” Moved, Mrs. Johnstone imagines what it would be like for a child of hers to be raised in the lap of luxury. Mrs. Lyons joins in, telling her cleaning lady about all the wonderful things the child would have. Together they picture his future as a wealthy, upstanding member of society. Once again, Mrs. Lyons promises that Mrs. Johnstone could see the child whenever she wanted, and she swears to take care of him. Mrs. Johnstone agrees, much to Mrs. Lyons’ joy.
Although the character of Mrs. Lyons is generally an unsympathetic one, here we (and Mrs. Johnstone) witness a moment of vulnerability and pain from the wealthy woman. Her fantasy draws in Mrs. Johnstone as well, and the two begin to picture the future of Mrs. Lyons’ imaginary son. This idea—that because of their class difference, Mrs. Lyons’ son should have a better future than Mrs. Johnstone’s—will become a crucial pattern as the play moves forward.
As she begins to plan the deception, Mrs. Lyons has Mrs. Johnstone swear on a Bible never to tell anyone about the bargain. The two agree, and the Narrator appears, telling them (and the audience) that it is now too late for the women to go back on their agreement, because the deal has been sealed. Mrs. Lyons leaves to shop for things for the baby as Mrs. Johnstone stays behind, shaken. The Narrator says that a deal is a deal, and that there is now a debt that must be paid.
The Narrator’s appearance as the two women swear on the Bible emphasizes how crucial this moment is. The women have now committed a crime—deception—and as the Narrator will often remind us, one day they will need to pay the debt for this crime. For the superstitious Mrs. Johnstone, especially, she can now never go back on her promise.
The Narrator exits and the play moves to a hospital room, where Mrs. Johnstone has given birth to her two baby boys. As she returns home, a Catalogue Man and Finance Man descend upon her and begin to demand that she pay her bills, asking her why she orders things she can’t pay for. More creditors enter, and they begin to remove Mrs. Johnstone’s possessions from her house in order to pay her debts. As she watches, she begins to sing about the many debts that she’s had to pay in her life—and the biggest debt of all is that she will have to give one of her sons to Mrs. Lyons. Mrs. Johnstone laments the fact that she will never know her son, and that her life will always be full of prices to pay.
Even during a moment that should be joyous—the birth of her children—Mrs. Johnstone is still beset by financial troubles. While Mrs. Johnstone sings about her woes, her real (monetary) debts become metaphorical ones, as she contemplates the idea of losing one of her children to Mrs. Lyons. The idea of debts, both real and symbolic, will run through the entire show, as characters struggle with how their actions in the past affect their lives in the present.
Mrs. Lyons enters, wearing fake pregnancy padding, and is upset that Mrs. Johnstone hasn’t notified her about the twins’ birth. Mrs. Johnstone begs to keep them both for a few days, but Mrs. Lyons says that her husband Mr. Lyons is due back tomorrow. She reminds Mrs. Johnstone that she swore on the Bible to keep their agreement. Upset, Mrs. Johnstone tells Mrs. Lyons to take one of the babies, and once again she sings about the debts in her life. Mrs. Lyons tells her to take a full week off before returning as a cleaning lady. Mrs. Lyons exits.
Mrs. Lyons again proves herself to be overeager and bullying as she demands that Mrs. Johnstone give her one of the boys immediately. She is manipulative as well, pushing Mrs. Johnstone into making the trade by playing off of her superstitions. Mrs. Lyons’ “generous” gift of only a week for maternity leave also shows just how sheltered and privileged she is.
Mrs. Johnstone’s children ask her what happened to the twin whom Mrs. Lyons just took. Mrs. Johnstone responds that he’s gone to heaven, and tells them about all the wonderful toys that he will play with there. The children ask if they can have toys as well, and beg her to look in the catalogue with them.
Although Mrs. Johnstone is an honest, warm-hearted character, the deal she made with Mrs. Lyons forces her to lie to her children about the whereabouts of their own sibling.
A week later, Mrs. Johnstone returns to work at Mrs. Lyons’ house. She stops for a minute at her baby’s crib and plays with him. Seeing her, Mr. Lyons approaches, and he expresses pride in both his wife and his new son. Mrs. Lyons, however, reacts hostilely, and tries to keep Mrs. Johnstone from touching the baby. Hurt and confused, Mrs. Johnstone exits. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lyons tells her husband that she doesn’t want Mrs. Johnstone touching the baby because she might give it a disease. She goes on to say that Mrs. Johnstone is bothering the baby, and is trying to act like the baby’s mother. Mr. Lyons tries to comfort her, but Mrs. Lyons refuses, saying that she wants to fire Mrs. Johnstone. Her husband says that she should do whatever she wants, and he tries to leave for a meeting. Then Mrs. Lyons asks him to give her some money: fifty pounds. Though Mr. Lyons is confused and alarmed, he agrees.
We see that Mrs. Johnstone still has a bond with her son—this is part of Russell’s theme of “nature vs. nurture,” in which he suggests that blood relatives always have a special kind of connection, even if they have totally different upbringings. Unfortunately, Mrs. Lyons sees this connection as well, and it is here that her feelings of jealousy, guilt, and paranoia truly begin to take form, as she realizes that the bond that Mrs. Johnstone has with her baby boy can never actually be broken. As the narrative moves forward, Mrs. Lyons’ negative feelings towards Mrs. Johnstone will become worse and worse, eventually consuming her completely.
Mrs. Lyons calls for Mrs. Johnstone and announces to her that she is no longer doing satisfactory work. She tries to give Mrs. Johnstone the fifty pounds, and tells her to leave for good. Shocked, Mrs. Johnstone says that she’ll be taking her son with her, but Mrs. Lyons refuses. Growing more and more upset, Mrs. Johnstone threatens to call the police. Mrs. Lyons responds that Mrs. Johnstone is at fault because she essentially sold her baby. Horrified, Mrs. Johnstone throws away the money that Mrs. Lyons has given her. Mrs. Johnstone says that she still wants to see her son, and that she’ll tell someone about what Mrs. Lyons has done. Mrs. Lyons, terrified by the threat, makes up a new superstition on the spot, telling Mrs. Johnstone that twins secretly parted who learn about their origins will both immediately die. Therefore, the twins must be raised apart, and must never know the truth.
In this scene we begin to see how Mrs. Lyons’ jealousy quickly consumes her, eventually turning her into the villain of the play. The scene also reveals the origins of the superstition that the Johnstone twins eventually fulfill—that if they ever know their true origins, both will die. What we witness here is that the superstition is a complete fabrication on the part of Mrs. Lyons—but as the musical will go on to prove, people often carry out their own superstitions, and create their own bad luck. We can unwittingly bring about our own dooms by believing too strongly that those dooms are fated.
The Narrator enters and once again sings about all the various omens of bad luck. He tells Mrs. Johnstone that “the devil’s got your number,” and that eventually, he’s going to find her and punish her for selling her son. The song ends as he threatens that the Devil is “knocking at your door.”
The Narrator will return many times to remind both Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons of their crime. He represents not only the forces of fate and superstition, but also the power of their own guilt.
The play moves seven years into the future, as the son whom Mrs. Johnstone kept, Mickey, knocks on his mother’s door while carrying a toy gun. His mother comes out, relieved to see him, and embraces him. He begins to complain, saying that “our Sammy”—his older brother—has stolen his other gun. Mrs. Johnstone tries to comfort him, saying that Sammy only bullies his brother because he’s the youngest. Mickey explains that they’ve been playing policeman and Indians. Then he pretends to shoot his mother, telling her that she’s now dead. Mickey offhandedly mentions that they’ve been playing down by the big houses near the park. Alarmed and upset, Mrs. Johnstone tells him never to play in that area. Mickey protests that she lets Sammy play there, but she replies that Sammy is older than he is, and exits.
We now move on to a vital theme within the play: that of coming of age. As the youngest child in the Johnstone clan, Mickey longs to be older so that the other children will stop bullying him. Another crucial theme—violence—is introduced here as well. As we see here, the idea of violence begins rather innocently, with the children playing an imaginary game with toy guns. As the play moves forward, however, the violence will begin to increasingly escalate, until it finally becomes fatal. Guns are symbolic precisely for this reason—they are always a representation and foreshadowing of violence, even when they are just children’s toys.
Frustrated, Mickey sings about how much he envies his brother Sammy. He complains that even though he himself is almost eight, everyone in his life treats him as a baby, bullying him and telling him what to do.
As a youngest child of many, Mickey wishes for a maturity that he doesn’t yet have—although eventually, adulthood will prove to be nothing like what he imagines.
As Mickey sulks, Edward, Mrs. Lyons’ son, emerges and greets him, saying that he saw Mickey playing by his house. Mickey says that he’s not allowed to play up there anymore, and Edward replies that he’s not supposed to play down by Mickey’s house. When Mickey demands candy, Edward happily agrees, adding that Mickey can take as many as he wants. Confused by Edward’s generosity and openness, Mickey tells him that in his world, people don’t simply give things away for free. His brother Sammy, for instance, would urinate on a sweet before giving it to his younger sibling. Mickey curses, impressing Edward, and then teaches his newfound friend “the ‘F’’ word.” Edward vows to look up the word in the dictionary. He then has to explain to a confused Mickey what exactly a dictionary is. The conversation turns back to Sammy, and Mickey explains that his older brother’s mood swings are due to the plate in his head—left over from when his sister, Donna Marie, dropped Sammy on his head as a baby.
The force of fate emerges again, as the two brothers meet each other despite not knowing about their shared blood. Immediately, the differences in the boys’ upbringings are apparent; Mickey is rough and suspicious, while Edward is open and generous. Russell clearly suggests that this is a result of their class difference—Mickey has been forced to protect what little he has, while Edward has always had plenty to spare. Despite these differences, the two boys immediately begin to get along, again bringing up the idea of a special connection between blood relatives. We’re also reminded of the various misfortunes that have befallen the Johnstone family, and even get an explanation for Sammy’s present (and future) delinquency—he was dropped on his head as a baby.
Awed by Mickey’s streetwise talk, Edward asks the other boy if they can be best friends. Mickey agrees. The two exchange names, and realize that they’re not only the same age, but have the same birthday. Because of this revelation, Mickey asks if Edward wants to be his “blood brother.” The two cut their fingers and shake hands, pledging to defend and stand by each other, and to always share sweets.
The presence of fate seems even stronger as the two boys decide to become not just best friends, but “blood brothers.” Of course, the idea of this relatively innocent childhood ritual also connects to the blood of violence at the play’s end. Although the two boys have never even met each other, their shared origin (“nature”) seems to create an immediate bond between them.
Sammy enters and interrupts the moment, holding a toy gun. He demands a sweet, and Edward agrees, even as Mickey frantically attempts to get his new friend to lie about having candy. Eventually Mickey hands over a sweet, but he also tries to get his gun back from Sammy. As the brothers squabble, Edward attempts to see the plate inside Sammy’s head, before apologizing for his rudeness. Sammy mocks Edward as “poshy,” but Mickey stands up for the other boy. The conversation moves on, and Sammy complains that all of his pet worms have died, and that he’ll need to give them a funeral.
Sammy enters, already a representation of violence and chaos. His crudeness and rudeness only emphasize how similar the other two boys are in contrast. In this context, the honest and straightforward Mickey seems more like Edward than like the juvenile delinquent Sammy. Despite his bad temper and slow mind, Sammy still represents the pinnacle of maturity and wisdom to Edward and Mickey.
Mrs. Johnstone emerges from her house, and Mickey introduces Edward as his “brother.” Mrs. Johnstone hears Edward’s name and freezes with surprise. After a moment, however, she orders Sammy and Mickey to get into her house. Edward asks her if he’s done something wrong, and Mrs. Johnstone asks him whether Mrs. Lyons knows where he is. Edward admits that his mother would be upset to learn where he is. Mrs. Johnstone orders him to head home, telling him to never come around her house ever again. If he does, she warns, the bogey man will get him.
In a moment of dramatic irony, Mickey and Edward don’t fully understand the significance of their new “brotherhood,” but Mrs. Johnstone does. Her superstition gets the best of her, however, and she still fears Mrs. Lyons’ claim that if the twins find out the truth, they will both die. So despite her longing to see her son, she still orders Edward away. Her threat of the “bogey man” also signals her own fear about the situation, and her overall reliance on superstition.
As Edward leaves, Mrs. Johnstone sings a lament that her son will never recognize her.
Although Mrs. Johnstone mourns her estrangement from Edward, she recognizes that it was her choice to give him up.
We shift to Mr. and Mrs. Lyons’ house. Mr. Lyons gives Edward the present of a toy gun, and then pretends to die. Mrs. Lyons begins to read her husband and son a story, but Mr. Lyons gets ready to leave before it is over. Edward reacts with disappointment, but Mr. Lyons explains that he must go to work. As Edward reads the dictionary, Mrs. Lyons complains that Mr. Lyons doesn’t spend enough time with his family. Mr. Lyons is unmoved, however, and he exits.
Once again a toy gun makes an appearance, in a sinister mixture of innocence and violence. We see here how smothering and overprotective Mrs. Lyons is—although considering the detachment and absence of her husband, her anxiety is perhaps understandable. Even this wealthy family, it seems, has its own problems and discords.
With his father gone, Edward asks Mrs. Lyons how to spell the word “bogey man.” Mrs. Lyons tells him that the bogey man is just a superstition of silly mothers.
Edward seems to have a stronger instinctual connection to Mrs. Johnstone than to his own “mother,” in this case being influenced by Mrs. Johnstone’s superstitions.
The doorbell of the Lyons house rings—it is Mickey come to see if Edward can play with him. The boys explain to Mrs. Lyons that they are blood brothers. Mrs. Lyons tries to usher her son off to bed, and then escorts Mickey out of her house. When she returns, she asks Edward how he met Mickey, and revealing that she knows Mickey’s last name to be Johnstone. She scolds her son, telling Edward that he and Mickey are not the same. Edward says that he hates her, and that if she loved him she would let him spend time with Mickey, whom he likes more than he likes his mother. They continue to fight, until Edward calls his mother a “fuckoff.” Incensed, she slaps him. After telling him never to mix with such horrible boys again, Mrs. Lyons abruptly apologizes, calling him her “beautiful son.”
The bond between Mickey and Edward begins to cause trouble when Edward reveals their friendship to the paranoid and anxious Mrs. Lyons, who already feels a great deal of rivalry with and envy toward the absent Mrs. Johnstone. Edward, however, begins to show the same stubborn, rebellious streak as his brother, and even takes on some of his rough, foul language as well. We once again witness evidence of Mrs. Lyons’ instability as she overreacts to her son’s insolence with violence—before almost immediately exhibiting remorse.
Edward watches from his garden as the neighborhood children begin a series of battles with each other. Sammy is in one gang, while Mickey and his friend Linda are in another. The children sing about their game, celebrating when they beat each other, but all the while knowing that “it doesn’t matter” because “the whole thing’s just a game.” Sammy is particularly violent and inappropriate, tormenting his little brother until Mickey tells him to “fuck off.” The other children immediately turn on Mickey and Linda, telling the boy that he’s going to die and go to hell for saying “the ‘F’ word.” Mickey is upset by the taunts, and Linda attempts to defend him. Eventually the two are left alone onstage.
The theme of violence begins to expand as the neighborhood children play a game with toy guns. By including this sequence, Russell illustrates just how common violence is in the world, but also how naïve the children are about the full implications of their games. We also see how isolated Mickey is—like Edward, he doesn’t quite belong to the world in which he lives. This sense of loneliness only cements the bond that will eventually form among Linda, Edward, and Mickey.
With the other children offstage, Linda comforts the upset Mickey. He cries that he doesn’t want to die. She tells him that everyone must die eventually, and that in death he’ll at last be able to see his twin again. Mickey brags that he’s stolen Sammy’s best gun, and tells Linda that they can play with it with Edward.
Here Russell begins to establish the importance of the relationship between Linda and Mickey. We also learn that Mickey still misses his twin, despite being told that he died at birth.
Mickey and Linda arrive at Edward’s garden. The two boys share the fact that their mothers don’t want them to play together, but decide to ignore their commands. Mickey introduces Edward to Linda, and the three decide to play together with Sammy’s gun by trying to shoot at the “thingy” on the Peter Pan statue in the park. Edward is worried that they’ll be caught by a policeman, but the other two children brag that they’ve been caught by policemen hundreds of times, and explain the various ways that they prank the unsuspecting lawmen. Edward is deeply impressed, and the trio exits.
Although Mickey and Linda are no more experienced or mature than Edward, they still use their street smarts to try to impress him. This sequence illustrates the vast difference between Linda and Mickey’s world and Edward’s privileged upbringing. The mention of Peter Pan, meanwhile, is a sly reference to the famous boy who never grew up—childhood, Russell implies, is an idyllic and all-too-fleeting time.
Mrs. Lyons enters, looking for Edward. The Narrator enters as well, and repeats his refrain, warning Mrs. Lyons that “gypsies” are going to come and take her baby away, and telling her that the devil has her number as well.
Here the Narrator represents Mrs. Lyons’ barely suppressed fear and paranoia. Mrs. Lyons started out using superstition as a manipulative tool against Mrs. Johnstone, but now Mrs. Lyons seems equally superstitious—she has come to believe her own lies.
Mr. Lyons tries to calm a frantic Mrs. Lyons, who is terrified about where her son has gone. Mr. Lyons wonders if something is wrong with his wife’s nerves. Mrs. Lyons tells him that she hates where they live, and wants to move far away before “something terrible” happens. She is disgusted by the children Edward is playing with, and worries that they are “drawing him away from me.” As Mr. Lyons tries to placate her, he picks up a pair of Edward’s shoes and places them on the table. Mrs. Lyons reacts with fright, sweeping the shoes off the table. As she does so, the Narrator enters, again listing his various bad omens, and adding that the devil is coming for Mrs. Lyons.
Mrs. Lyons hysteria reaches new heights as she begs her husband to move away from the area entirely. The depths of her paranoia, however, become apparent when she is terrified by shoes upon the table. A superstition that she previously scoffed at has now become horrifying to her, proof of her underlying fear and anxiety about her original deception. The narrator’s appearance only underscores the feeling of foreboding within the scene, as he acts as an embodiment of Mrs. Lyons’ fear and guilt.
The three children, meanwhile, are playing with their stolen toy gun. Only Linda hits the target, until Mickey declares that they aren’t playing with the gun anymore, and they decide to throw stones through windows instead. Neither Mickey nor Linda is brave enough to do so, however, and so Edward volunteers. He throws a rock through a window, only to be caught by a policeman. Linda and Mickey are terrified, but Edward sasses the policeman, as he believes the other two often do. When Edward sees their negative reactions, however, all three children begin to cry. They exit, pursued by the policeman.
Once again the gun returns as a double-edged symbol, simultaneously symbolizing both violence and innocence. Innocence also crops up in the form of Edward, who naïvely attempts to prove his bravery and daring to Mickey and Linda. This scene also represents the first real illustration of the bond among Mickey, Edward, and Linda—the closeness of which at first seems ideal, but eventually proves deadly.
The policeman confronts Mrs. Johnstone, telling her that she and her children will get no more warnings—if Sammy or Mickey commit any more crimes, he will take Mrs. Johnstone to court. As he leaves, Mrs. Johnstone sings, imagining moving her family to a new place far away from their home and their troubles.
The policeman is rude and abrupt to Mrs. Johnstone, a signal of how many times he has already had to discipline her family (especially the unruly Sammy). Mrs. Johnstone’s lament, meanwhile, symbolizes the regrets of her past, which always seem to follow her.
The policeman moves on to the Lyons’ house, where he behaves in quite a different manner, drinking a glass of scotch with Mr. Lyons and telling him that Edward isn’t really in trouble. He does, however, warn Mr. Lyons to keep Edward away from the poor neighborhood children.
In contrast to his rudeness at Mrs. Johnstone’s house, the policeman is polite and fawning towards Mr. Lyons. Justice is supposed to be blind, but the Lyons’ wealth makes the policeman hypocritical and unfair. Even though Edward was the one who actually threw the rock, it is the poor boys who are punished.
After the policeman leaves, Mr. Lyons asks Edward if he would like to move to the country, explaining that Mrs. Lyons has been ill. Edward protests that he wants to stay, but Mr. Lyons asks him to consider it.
Mrs. Lyons’ paranoia has reached such a fever pitch that she is actually willing to uproot her life and her family in order to escape the Johnstones and her shameful past.
Edward leaves his house and goes to the Johnstones’, where Mrs. Johnstone answers the door. She asks him if his mother looks after him, and he responds that she does. Mrs. Johnstone warns Edward not to come to her house again, and Edward says that he was just looking for Mickey, to tell his friend that he will be moving to the country the very next day. He begins to cry, saying that he wants to stay where Mickey is. Overcome with emotion, Mrs. Johnstone embraces Edward and says that he will soon forget Mickey, but Edward says that he’ll never forget. Mrs. Johnstone observes that while Edward doesn’t want to leave, she herself has been wanting to abandon her community for years. Edward asks her why she can’t buy a house near his family’s. In response, Mrs. Johnstone removes a locket from her neck with a picture of Mickey and herself in it. She gives Edward the locket so that he can remember Mickey, and tells him that he must keep it a secret. Encouraged by this gesture, Edward tells Mrs. Johnstone that he thinks she’s “smashing.”
Although Mrs. Johnstone’s fear and superstition have thus far kept her from interacting with Edward, here her motherly instincts overcome her better judgment as she embraces and comforts him. Edward, meanwhile, once again displays his innocence, as he naïvely asks why the Johnstones can’t just buy a house near his family. This moment is most vital, however, because Mrs. Johnstone gives Edward the locket containing the picture of her and Mickey. This object will not only become an important plot point, but is also a physical symbol of the familial bond among the three of them. Although Edward has no idea that he’s related to Mrs. Johnstone, he still feels instinctively drawn to her, and in fact interacts with her much more easily than he does with his own mother.
Mickey and Edward say a wordless goodbye. Edward gives Mickey a toy gun, and then travels away with his parents.
In a grim moment of foreshadowing, the two boys exchange a gun (rather than a bullet, as they will in the deadly finale).
Edward is unenthusiastic about his new home in the country, although Mrs. Lyons tries to persuade him of how beautiful it is. He reacts with violent fear, however, when he sees a magpie, explaining that Mickey told him that the birds signify sorrow. Mrs. Lyons tells him to forget about Mickey, but Edward says that he’s going to go inside and read. Mr. Lyons reassures Mrs. Lyons that children are adaptable, but she is not comforted.
Even though he’s grown up in a rich and “rational” home, Edward has quickly taken on Mickey’s superstitions, proof of the influence that the other boy has had over him. Mrs. Lyons, meanwhile, reacts hypocritically. Although she is paranoid and superstitious herself, she mocks superstition when her son displays it—perhaps because it reminds her of Mrs. Johnstone.
Mickey visits Edward’s former home, but a strange woman answers the door. He asks where Edward has moved, but she doesn’t know, and asks him to leave. Left alone on the street, Mickey begins to sing about how lonely it is to be bored and without your best friend on a Sunday afternoon. “Equally bored and alone,” Edward sings the same song in his garden. They begin to sing about each other, with Mickey singing about how smart and generous Edward is, and Edward marveling at how strong and savvy Mickey is.
Despite his young age, Mickey shows persistence and loyalty in his quest to reunite with Edward. The two share a song, musical proof of how similar they are, and of their shared blood and temperaments. Although the two boys have no idea how deep the bond they share really is, they already sense how important each one is to the other.
Mrs. Johnstone appears clutching a letter, ecstatic. Donna Marie and Sammy enter, as do the Johnstones’ neighbors, and Mrs. Johnstone announces that her family is being relocated to the country, where no one will know her family’s reputation. She begins to imagine her family’s life at their new address, with its garden and its fresh, country air. She orders her children to come help her pack, as all of her neighbors (and the Milkman) rejoice that the unruly family will finally be leaving. Mrs. Johnstone reenters, singing about all of the rickety old furniture that they’re leaving behind. She even pictures the Pope visiting her in her new house. As she sings about this “bright new day,” the scene transitions to the country, where the Johnstone children explore their new home. Act One ends.
As the first act reaches its conclusion, Mrs. Johnstone announces—as Mrs. Lyons did before her—that her family is moving to the country. The strange parallels between the lives of Mickey and Edward continue. By leaving the city, Mrs. Johnstone hopes to escape her sordid past, and to leave all the various unfortunate events in her life—from being abandoned by her husband to giving up her own child—behind her. This is a surprisingly upbeat note for this dark musical, but in the end, the idea of leaving behind the past turns out to be a deceptively optimistic one.