Book, Music, Lyrics: Willy Russell
Director: Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright
A classic becomes a classic independent of its stars, its tunes or its fancy set designs. It’s the relationship between an audience and the spirit of the thing that counts. If it can bang its drum for different demographics and generations, and have them properly connect with its rhythm, then you may just have a piece of art with longevity on your hands.
So, Blood Brothers returns to London bringing its story of class division and questions of fate v circumstance. Playing and touring since 1983, it has reached “classic” status, at least in the UK, a country endlessly fascinated by class dissection and underdogs. It’s remarkable that there’s still people out there who haven’t seen Willy Russell’s cracking work, but if they can get to Wimbledon by the 12th (or hit another slot on the tour) they’ll get a fine presentation of it.
Set in and around the Liverpool of the early 50’s to the late 70’s, the story focuses on two non-identical twins, separated at birth, with one being kept by their struggling and overburdened mother, Mrs. Johnstone, and the other given (with deep regret) to the childless Mrs. Lyons who employs Mrs. Johnstone as a cleaner. The two boys grow up in vastly different circumstances, though become firm friends after a chance meeting in childhood. From the happy equality of the playground their paths diverge and while they’re connected by deep friendship and their love of the same girl, their destiny for an unhappy ending has been written from the start.
Russell’s music matches the grand scope of his narrative; a booming 80’s synth and drum machine soundtrack backs a selection of compelling and earnest songs like the sparky and joyful celebration of childhood Kids Game. The show really shines in its quieter moments, however. When the throttle is eased back we see the whole world of hope and hardship from Mrs. Johnstone (Niki Evans in really fine form) through the ever evolving number Marilyn Monroe.
As the boys, you couldn’t ask for a better pairing than Sean Jones (who has been playing Mickey for years) and the similarly experienced Joel Benedict. They’re joined by a host of other long standing Blood Brothers players like Tim Churchill and Paula Tappenden as Mr. and Mrs. Lyons. All credit to them, not once does the energy flag and the overall impression is that they’re prepared to leave it all on the field every single night.
Within its bombastic scope, the issue with the show has always been its slightly cringy writing at times. It’s beginning to show its age a bit, never more clearly than in Robbie Scotcvher’s Narrator script which is both simplistic and melodramatic. Mickey’s “I wish I was our Sammy” poem also feels very much like a Year 9 English lit. class composition.
Its enduring strength is in the combination of every element, and in its constantly relatable story. The depiction of grinding inter-generational poverty and class envy is tough to watch, even more so as we know we’re not watching history. It’s the pressing lived experience of everyone who sees it and it’s clear outside the theatre doors anywhere in the country. The production tours to Manchester next where it will play to an audience of patrons soaked in the current conversation of “levelling up”, whatever that means, where it will once again show why it’s been so popular with audiences for decades.
Whatever the reason for wanting to see it – the music, the message, the performance or the combination – it’s the right one. It may be showing its age, but Blood Brothers still holds a lot for a modern audience and this production gives it away generously.
Runs until 12 February 2022 then touring