Saturday 19th May 2018 at the Palace Theatre, Manchester.
It’s been eight years since I saw Blood Brothers for the first time. I loved it the moment I saw it and I’ve been so desperate to see it again that I was a little cautious going in, thinking perhaps I’d over-egged the memory over time… I’m so glad to report that it remains as superb as I remember; Willy Russell’s Book, music and lyrics deliver a gripping tale in vibrant and dark ways with a script full of Scouse charm, wit and great tragedy alongside an assured and varied score. Directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, this is the latest of many incarnations of Russell’s story and while it didn’t quite feel as polished as the first time I saw it, it’s every bit the five star beauty I remembered it to be. Russell’s characters are lively and beautifully written to deliver the whole spectrum of human emotions and the sheer ground covered politically and socially within Russell’s script gives the production an edge just as it seems to court melodrama. The show courts a range of genres in fact; it’s never a full blown musical spectacle as it favours a solid dramatic narrative and realism over tap shoes and sequins; it’s full of drama and tragedy but it’s also hugely entertaining and full of warm comedy – it’s a total winner, this one.Blood Brothers offers a timeless tale of fate and fortune. Designer Andy Walmsley instantly lands us in the centre of Liverpool with a backdrop of the Liver Birds proudly announcing that this is a Liverpudlian tale, complete with all the trimmings – wit, warmth and a strong moral compass. Twin boys Mickey and Edward, who are born to a working class mother barely scraping by, are separated following the desperate intervention of a well-off woman who has everything she wants in life, but cannot conceive a child. One boy heads up town to live a life of comfort while the other remains in a home which has moving furniture – in that men are always stopping by to remove what the mother cannot pay for. Mrs Johnstone struggles financially but loves freely and deeply; Mrs Lyons loves deeply and desperately but becomes blind to the comforts on offer – and the boys are destined for very different futures.
There’s so much more going on within the framework than the over-arching narrative of separated twins sent to different lives though – this can very much be recognised as a modern morality play. Russell’s story harpoons class prejudice and explores things beyond the simplistic nature/ nurture debate, asking is an uptight mother battling guilt and suspicion giving her son all he deserves? How can an over-stretched mother offer such warmth and good humour to each of her children? How do religion and superstition interplay to allow for a shocking manipulation? How far can desperation take a human mind? Just how complicit are government institutions in keeping the poor down and giving the rich free-passes? Why do corporations target the have-nots with payment plans knowing full well the cycle of debt and want is inevitable? Where do ‘youth and laughter go’ when the future holds only the Dole, crime, drugs and disappointments? Yes, at the centre of everything, Blood Brothers is a classic and simple tale which asks just how much of who we are comes from those who bred, brought up or befriended us, but there’s so much more being said in ways which are so subtly interwoven with the charm and tragedy of the piece that it’s simply genius – factor in how fantastically funny the script is, and there’s no wondering to be done as to why this story keeps returning to our stages.What stuns me with this current production is just how many of the cast from the first time I saw the show are still walking in the shoes of those characters. I knew Lyn Paul was back as the wonderful Mrs Johnstone, but little did I know that Sean Jones is still whizzing around as Mickey, Daniel Taylor is still squaring up to everyone as Sammy, Graham Martin is again the Policeman and Teacher and Graeme Kinniburgh returns as the Bus Conductor…and their long-term commitment contributes seasoned performances from each and every one of them. Lyn Paul is a perfect Mrs Johnstone; no-nonsense, incredibly warm and down-to-earth in equal measures. But it’s Paul’s voice which seals the perfection deal; it has something of a country tone to it without ever feeling country…and by that I mean Paul’s voice positively drips with feeling and it’s when she is singing that she most skilfully wrings hearts. Paul’s songs are by far the most memorable and emotive, from Marilyn Monroe and Easy Terms to Light Romance and of course Tell Me It’s Not True. Jones is a wonderful Mickey every step of the way – hilarious and unstoppable as a young scamp and hauntingly broken as the troubled grown-up while Taylor’s Sammy straddles clumsiness and threat very nicely, offering a perfect balance of villain and victim of circumstance. Martin is a great chameleon as he switches between various mean-spirited men tampering with any good news, contentment or happiness touching our leads – it’s a tough gig, but he delivers well!New to me this time around are Mark Hutchinson, who gives Eddie an interesting characterisation here. Hutchinson’s Eddie is very softly spoken and never stands tall, unlike the over-eager, exuberant posh boy version I first saw from Paul Davies back in 2010, but I liked Hutchinson’s take on the character – it made for more of a contrast with Jones and the pair have some excellent comical exchanges early on. Andy Owens shines in his small but memorably comical role as the exasperating dork Perkins and Sarah Jane Buckley’s performance of Mrs Lyons is excellent – all pent up frustration and instability as she almost instantaneously transforms from a bright and prim lady who lunches into a bundle of desperation as soon as the pact is made. Danielle Corlass is also superb as Linda and gives a tour de force performance as we watch the skilfully depicted progression from squeaky-voiced child to hilariously besotted teen to downtrodden adult with too many woes to bear. Corlass gives a performance impressively in step with the seasoned precision and flair of Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone and Sean Jones as Mickey in fact.
It is the performances from Jones and Corlass’ which most perfectly demonstrate just how skilled and complex the writing of Blood Brothers actually is. The audience have to believe in every gradual growth spurt, and it takes both a brilliant script and a brilliant performance to deliver such a thing credibly. The transitions from young Mickey and Linda to older, broken versions of the bright eyed, hilarious duo from earlier scenes is only credible because the writing is so spot on and the performances take us on the journey ever so gradually. Russell’s darkly ominous and omniscient Narrator (an intense, impactful Mathew Craig) helps to guide us through the years too, but it’s incredibly impressive to see actors work such magic – and we have to believe in this progression and the sharp contrasts emerging for the closing scenes to really hit home of course.Blood Brothers is a superlative piece of theatre; it tells a fantastically probing story which begs big questions in comical, light ways despite the heavy answers lingering in the air. Characters, script and music are all spot on, all the time and it’s a masterclass in how to deliver great depth while declaring the simplicity of having that classic ‘big heart’ on the surface. The generous comedy of the piece holds everything together nicely, particularly in the first half as our characters are growing up, but this production confronts uncomfortable truths head-on too, with a surprisingly dark second act. This is a show to make you laugh freely but also to coax sad tears down your cheeks (if you’re in need of an indication of just how emotional the story is proud to be, you need only look at how many songs have reprises across the performance…) It really is the full package, and while ‘Must-see’ is thrown around a lot these days, I rarely use it, so when I say Blood Brothers is absolutely a must see, I mean it – and you should!
Blood Brothers plays its final dates of the current tour at the Manchester Palace Theatre until May 26th and you can find tickets here.