Family and friendship for characters from two different social classes form the heart of the play. Russell shows how wealth brings privilege, even down to the way the Johnstone's and the Lyons are treated differently by the law.
The four main characters can be seen to be social stereotypes, presented dramatically in order to emphasise certain important differences in social class. Russell does this to show the unfairness that it results in.
The individual and Society
In the play Russell illustrates the influence that society has on individuals, in their education, behaviour and the opportunities they have. When Mickey says at the end of the play ‘I could have been him’, the audience become aware of just how differently life might have turned out for him if he had been brought up within the Lyons family.
Nature V. Nurture
The 'nature versus nurture' debate is about how much a persons life is determined by their inherited genetics (their 'nature') and how much is determined by the environment they grow up in ('nurture'). The boys are identical twins and so the difference in the way their lives turn out must be a result of their different upbringings and social positions. Russell uses the twins idea to persuade us that attitudes in society influence peoples lives more than their individual efforts at wanting to do well.
Russell's play is deliberately objecting to a view that was popular in the UK at the time the play was written. Margaret Thatcher's right wing conservative government claimed that everyone who wanted to work hard could be successful. But Russell clearly objects to this view.
Fate, Bad luck and Destiny
Each of the major characters is presented as being trapped and plagued by various kinds of misfortune and bad luck. Russell seems to be asking us to consider whether there really is such a thing as fate or destiny or whether life pans out because of natural rather than supernatural reasons, because of the way we are educated and live.
So although fate and superstition is a recurring idea, everything in the play leads to question whether these things really exist.
This theme is linked to social class. Russell shows that wealth brings different educational opportunities and these lead to very different lifestyles. Eddie and Mickey are educated differently. One goes on to university and a successful career in politics, the other to a factory job making boxes. Redundancy and lack of opportunity then lead Mickey to crime, drug addiction and depression. Without a better education Russell is saying that Mickey had few options, and so we are asked to see Mickey's mistakes in a sympathetic light.
The effects of education shape the lives of the women in the play too. When Mrs Johnstone loses her husband she falls into poverty from which her lack of education has provided her with no easy means of escape. She can take unskilled work, and also has to rely on the State for rehousing to a better place.
Compare her with Mrs Lyons who also, despite presumably a middle-class education, is still not self-reliant. In this case Russell is suggesting perhaps that the traditional lives the women lead have less freedom, even when they are educated.
In the play, the friendship between Eddie and Mickey is initially strong despite their different social backgrounds. Russell is saying that children can make friends easily and form strong relationships even if their parents don't approve. He is suggesting that human nature is blind to social conventions.
But in the adult world, unemployment and poverty hits Mickey. Edward seems to him to be from a different world. Russell seems to suggest that friendship is dependent upon shared experiences. Once the two characters go their separate ways, shaped and moulded by education, wealth and social status, tensions develop between them.
Many works in drama and literature have a theme of ‘growing up’. Russell’s play is in part just this. Life, for the children, is shown to be a carefree game in Act One. But the pressures of growing up in different backgrounds and educational systems are shown to bring problems later on.
It is the different experience of growing up that ends the friendship between Edward and Mickey. For example after Mickey loses his job Edward tries to be positive about his situation. But Mickey tells Edward that he cannot understand living on the dole. He says that Edward hasn't had to grow up like him, to face the difficulties of the adult world. He says that they don't have anything in common any more.
Men and Women
All three major female characters in the play (Mrs. Johnston, Mrs. Lyons and Linda) suffer at the hands of the men in their lives – they are either let down by their husbands or receive no affection from them.
Russell presents a world where the roles of women and men are sharply separate, as a result of the roles given to men and women in their social classes. The female characters tend to be more passive, the male characters are shown as being active and macho.
Russell’s play has money and materialism as a theme. Mrs. Johnstone’s life in debt, buying things on the ‘never-never’, leads to problems. But Mrs Lyons’ wealthy existence fails to bring her contentment and happiness either.
Money controls the relationship of Edward and Mickey too – once Edward returns from university as a wealthy man, Russell suggests that his friendship with the penniless Mickey can no longer be the same, as he cannot appreciate Mickey's reaction to being jobless. And nor can Mickey's pride allow him to accept financial help from Edward.