Blood Brothers

Reviewer's rating

Let me start by saying that this touring production is exceptionally well done and worth a visit for the sheer energy and commitment of everyone involved. The cast act as a true ensemble, the music theatre aspects are confidently and enjoyably handled, and the complex story of twins separated at birth and unwittingly becoming friends is clearly told.

The actual tale almost has a Greek tragedy trope to it: once the two women decide that the twins should be separated, one given to the more upper crust Mrs Lyons who cannot have children, the other remaining with a working class single mother, Mrs Johnstone, who already has more mouths to feed than she can manage, the development of the tale almost feels as if the fates of Greek tragedy are working behind the scenes to bring about an inevitable tragic conclusion. And this tragic conclusion is signalled in the first scene so that we are waiting for it even through more positive, comic and upbeat developments of the story. The story, though written back in 1983, feels contemporary as well and is though provoking about the state of the UK today. The set design by Andy Walmsley is particularly good at conveying the explicit social commentary and the time of the setting.

Willy Russell has written the book, the music and the lyrics and for me there is a bit of a sameness to all the songs in style, but all the songs are also very pleasant and do move the story forward or convey more about the characters. The integration of the songs works extremely well. Russell spends most of the first act building the characters and telling the story with a good deal of comic incident which serves to make the second half, when things darken, more of a punch in the gut.

The distractions and pleasures of the entertainment aspects of the show do not undercut the central concern with issues of class. Because the brothers are brought up in different circumstances the current debate on opportunities and advantages given to some children because of background and unavailable to others because of constrained, more impoverished circumstances are very clear. When the two boys get into trouble with the police, Mrs Johnstone is treated almost as a criminal herself and threatened with court, removal of her children and so on. Mrs Lyons is told that her son has been in a bit of mischief, just the kind of thing kids get up to. A further social concern in this script that is very topical is that with mental health. Mrs Lyons, portrayed with total commitment by Sarah Jane Buckley, loses control as the years go by and becomes paranoid. Sarah Jane Buckley has strong, clarion voice and approach that is both dazzling and dramatically of great benefit to her portrayal. And Mickey, the son brought up in poverty, has to deal once he is grown up with being laid off, being unable to find work, and also sinking into despair and desperation. It has to be noted, too, that in the first half when much of the cast is playing children they do a fine job conveying their youth and inexperience.

One of the great pleasures of the evening, for me, was simply the performances. The night I attended the role of Mickey was played by understudy Josh Capper with such enthusiasm, energy and physicality that he was a standout. Equally strong was Joe Sleight as Eddie and Danny Whitehead as the Narrator, who acts as a kind of Greek Chorus, explaining and commenting throughout. All of them had very good music theatre voices.  I liked Gemma Brodrick’s Linda and Tim Churchill struck just the right tone as Mr Lyons.

But for me a notable standout performance was by Niki Colwell Evans as Mrs Johnstone – her Ethel Mermanesque voice and delivery, her demeanour, her way of moving about the stage – everything was at a consistently high level of the performing art. The band directed by Matt Malone could do no wrong and the Sound Design by Dan Samson was extremely smooth and pleasant on the ears.

I have some quibbles with the material – instead of an Arthur Miller approach to contemporary tragedy (Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge) this is more the East Enders approach. It is none the worse for that, just has a different appeal. But though I would have preferred something spikier, I accept that this material is given the best and most imaginative production for what it is and that the evening is thoroughly enjoyable. The show got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end on the night that I saw it, both for the material itself and also for the extremely talented, well-drilled ensemble of fine performers..