Book, Music and Lyrics: Willy Russell
Directors: Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson
Willy Russell’s devastating musical, Blood Brothers, reaches Dartford as part of its UK tour in a brutal look at class struggle and family tragedy in a simply stunning revival which is still as relevant as it was when the play first debuted over 30 years ago.
Set within the class struggle of the haves and have-nots in 1960s Liverpool, Mrs Johnstone finds herself caught in an impossible situation, carrying twins with little money or security for her family. Offered an unfathomable choice, Mrs Johnstone’s decision, which dictates her and her family’s future, consumes and haunts her as she deals with the aftermath of her choice and her desperation to keep it secret, amid crippling economic and social depression in working class England as it shifts into Thatcher’s Britain. There is an eerie parallel to the austerity and mental health crisis which looms over Britain today, and it is this timeless nature, as well as a superb cast, which leads to an incredible production.
Niki Colwell Evans, as Mrs Johnstone, presents a character grappling with her situation, and Colwell Evans balances carefully the pain and anguish Mrs Johnstone feels while also embracing the chances she gains in life. Colwell Evans is at ease in this role, stepping back into it having played the character during the show’s West End run, and showcases a superb vocal range and more than makes this iconic character her own. Her interaction with her on-stage family is warm yet the pain and anguish she feels is all too evident in this piece. Colwell Evans has fierce competition against many other leading women who have taken on the character, but this performance is sensational and gut-wrenching, particularly in the piece’s final number.
Richard Munday is the Narrator, an omnipresent figure who represents the consciences of the characters in the production. Munday strikes an eerie tone and there are moments when you suddenly notice Munday drifting at the back or to the side of the stage, and his initially non-intrusive performance represents how the conflicts and consciences of the characters gently grow and build towards their final, devastating revelations. In the second half, the Narrator is far more apparent and Munday oozes swagger as the character entraps each key individual in the story within the horrors to come. The Narrator role, in this show, is one of the most renowned figures in musical theatre, and Munday more than impresses in this understated yet effective delivery.
As Mickey and Eddie, Josh Capper and Jay Worley respectively are energetically thrilling in bringing these troubled characters to life. Capper’s Mickey is bubbly and bouncy, driving a large part of the piece’s humour in the first half. What is impressive is Capper’s ability to then twist this to explore Mickey’s more vulnerable side after the interval. The sharp decline in his character is stark, and the psychological pain Mickey feels is palpable in Capper’s moving portrayal. In contrast, while Mickey wrestles with his demons, Jay Worley’s posh Eddie is a perfect opposite to the brash Mickey. Worley’s comic timing, particularly his physical work, is impressive and between him and Capper the pair forges an endearing double act, which the piece hinges upon.
Paula Tappenden, Mrs Lyons, is typically cold and, like Mrs Johnstone, is haunted by her choices early in her life. Tappenden subtly brings out the declining mental health Mrs Lyons suffers because of her actions, and her delivery makes the character acutely, and reasonably, unlikeable as her desperation increases. It is through the Lyons that the piece’s social criticism somewhat lies, where the haves abuse and manipulate the have-nots, and Tappenden’s Mrs Lyons, and her prejudices, successfully convey this.
This iteration of Blood Brothers is one of the best yet. This is a warm, at times funny but ultimately painful piece which leaves such an impact by its conclusion. Performed by an exceptional cast, the piece grapples with mental health, economic depression and masculine identity, as well as social class prejudices. The ending is still just as powerful as it ever was, and despite its narrative firmly rooted in Liverpool’s societal struggles of the 60s-80s, it transcends its time span to feel just as fresh, and as important, today. This production is unmissable.
Runs until 12 November, then continues to tour