Tuesday 7th May 2019 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers has landed in Leeds and is set to steal hearts here as it has done year in and year out both nationally and internationally. Frankly, I hope Blood Brothers never disappears from the touring circuit – it’s a welcome example of well crafted touring theatre in a landscape of new work which could more often than not do with a few tips! So, whether you’re a newbie to the story or it’s a firm favourite like it is for me, the current production does a lovely job of bringing Russell’s moving, charmingly audacious and politically charged classic to the stage.
Russell’s story sees Mrs Johnstone, a single mum scraping by with far too many mouths to feed manipulated into giving up one of her unborn twins to her childless boss, Mrs Lyons. Mrs Johnstone is a simple soul you see – she loves her children but she can’t afford to feed them. There’s no malice, only love and a sense of resignation with her lot in life. She lives hand to mouth buying from catalogues only to see the items repossessed a month later. The dole is a staple of the lives on her street and her kids run riot because that’s all there is to do. She works for a well-off childless couple and the irony is not lost; this is Russell’s mirror up to society piece.
Of course, despite best efforts to keep the separated twins apart in their respective domestic bubbles, the twins inevitably meet when out playing one day. Hilarity ensues as privileged and deprived worlds collide in brilliant culture clashes. As these clueless young tykes, Mickey Johnstone and Edward Lyons form a cast iron bond which no amount of Mrs Lyons meddling can tear asunder…or at least at first. Innocent childhood soon departs and adulthood arrives with a crash, bringing friction and danger with it. From there Russell showcases his skills with the flip side of the emotional coin.
BEFORE the drama and the tragedy however, there are laughs. Many, many laughs. Act 1 will only ever be a joy as we’re taken to a scrappy area of 60s Liverpool with the Liver Building glittering in the distance beyond graffitied walls (Designer: Andy Walmsley). Lairy kids come out to play and there’s a rich abundance of comedy rooted in the innocence and unquenchable energy of the young. Direction from Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright keeps the production propelling forward at pace but crucially, without cost to the story itself. There are of course dark clouds looming though and they pierce the bubble a little later.
This current production like others before it features some great talent. With Blood Brothers, if you have a top Mickey and Mrs Johnstone, you’re halfway there and Linzi Hateley’s Mrs Johnstone is full of warmth. She is every bit the likeably casual working mum with too much on her plate. Hateley’s take on the Liverpudlian accent doesn’t always sit right but what she lacks in depth of Scouse sound she makes up for with a very moving performance which hits particularly hard in those vital closing scenes.
Robbie Scotcher makes a smoothly ominous narrator who broods and warns from the margins. He also manages to subtly express personal dismay at the action he cannot change which is a dynamic I haven’t seen played so well before. Paula Tappenden’s Mrs Lyons is the most melodramatic take on the character that I’ve seen and Tappenden works hard to display the deterioration of the upright character. It is a very good performance, but at times the upright comes across as more hollow than it should and Tappenden doesn’t quite meet Hateley’s level when it comes to the depiction of multi-faceted women.
Alexander Patmore and Joel Benedict are excellent partners in crime both as the young wannabe tearaways Mickey and Eddie and as the older more twisted versions of those winningly naive children. They land every laugh and are like for like in sharp comic physicality and knowing how to nail a quip. Patmore is particularly impressive as both the incorrigible, hilarious youngster and the older troubled Mickey.
Danielle Corlass remains a definitive Linda – having seen her in the role previously, I can say that she just seems to keep getting better and better, taking on the character like a second skin. Here Linda is everything she should be: likeable, relateable, funny and pitiable and Corlass defines each stage of Linda’s life beautifully with careful transitions as the group of friends grow up. She’s thoroughly wonderful in the role and an absolute asset to this production- particularly as she carries the Olympic torch high for the brilliant Scouse accent too!
Another seasoned and brilliant pro here is Daniel Taylor as Sammy. Taylor’s swagger and Scouse drawl couldn’t be more perfect and like Corlass, the character fits him like a glove. Also taking a star turn is the jack of all characters Graham Martin who shows exactly how tongue in cheek multi-roling should be done. Russell’s writing gets a great outing with this cast.
Blood Brothers is a beautifully written and constructed piece which manages to be moving and funny in equal measures. With Russell creating Book, lyrics and music for the show, there’s a cohesion to Blood Brothers which few other musicals rival and with a wonderful score offering up light-footed ditties like Marilyn Monroe and Bright New Day alongside gut crunching ballads like Tell Me It’s Not True and *stifled sob* Easy Terms, this show has everything you need for a rollercoaster ride of entertainment. It’ll bring you to both laughter and tears – catch it if you can!
Blood Brothers is produced by Bill Kenwright and plays at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until May 18th 2019. You can find tickets here.