Book, Music and Lyrics: Willy Russell
Directors: Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson
Originally developed as a school play, Blood Brothers became one of the most successful musicals of the 1980s. First seen in 1983, Willy Russell’s exploration of nature versus nurture through the separation of fraternal twins saw phenomenal success, running in London for nearly 25 years and over 10,000 performances. With the show’s 40th anniversary on the horizon in 2023, the musical is again touring the UK.
Blood Brothers sees struggling mum Mrs Johnstone (Niki Colwell Evans) pregnant again, this time with twins. Knowing she’s unable to afford to keep both babies, she reluctantly agrees to sell one of the brothers to her employer Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), easing her financial burden while offering the Lyons the child they can’t have naturally. Superstition dictates that separated twins who learn they’re part of a pair are doomed to tragedy, so the mothers agree to keep the children apart and never speak of the other’s existence. The show then follows the next 20 years of the children’s lives, through childhood friendship and young love, and asks who or what really determines how life turns out.
With so many musicals being reimagined and reworked these days, fans of the show will be thrilled to learn that this production of Blood Brothers (directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright) feels the same as it always has. This invariably brings with it negatives and positives, as while some would argue it stands on the verge of becoming a stale museum piece, others will revel in its timeless power to move audiences deeply. The show’s roots as a play are strongly felt throughout, with some long stretches of book-heavy scenes and the musical elements almost taking a back seat. Both acts have always felt a little on the long side, with some of the scenes with the twins and their friends feeling overly drawn out, and the pace can feel a little lethargic at times. But with its engrossing story and flawed characters, the show remains as gripping as ever. Russell’s score is definitely “of its time”, with 80s synthesisers and EastEnders-style “duff duff” beats punctuating the tunes, but it retains a haunting wistful feeling of lamentation throughout which fits the story beautifully.
Russell once famously said that while he may not have written the best musical, he might’ve written the best last five minutes, and the show’s heart-breaking denouement certainly remains as powerful as it ever did. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it, and even though you know it’s coming, it still comes as a punch to the gut. Timed to perfection, and with a masterstroke of cast placement that really ramps up the tension, it is delivered exceptionally well. Being immediately followed by the stirring Tell Me It’s Not True, it is undoubtedly one of the finest scenes in musical theatre.
Leading the cast is Niki Colwell Evans, who is simply sublime. Fully encapsulating Johnstone’s earthy grit, Evans excels as the mother trying to do what’s best for her children. It’s a rounded, believable and touching portrayal, accompanied by some incredible vocals, and she shines on the stage. She’s joined by Blood Brothers royalty Sean Jones as son Mickey who appears in his last stint with the show having played the character on and off for two decades. He may be far too old for the part (he’s two years older than Evans), but he’s so good in the role that it’s easily forgiven, especially for this tour celebrating the show’s anniversary. His journey from cheeky seven-year-old to broken 20-something is skilfully layered, and Jones shows absolutely no sign of fatigue despite having played it countless times before. Jay Worley is also excellent as twin Eddie, contrasting brilliantly with Jones and bringing both an endearing innocence and subsequently a likeable maturity to the role. And as the Narrator, Richard Munday haunts the stage effectively, hovering over the proceedings as a constant ominous threat. It’s a shame he only gets one main song to sing (repeated arguably a few too many times throughout the show), but he sounds great.
While the jury is still out on whether it’s time for Blood Brothers to be reimagined or reworked to update it for modern audiences, there’s no denying its power and emotional grip. Performed with pure conviction by a talented cast, the musical remains essential viewing for anyone who has yet to experience it, and a rewarding night out for those returning to it again and again.
Runs Until 19 November 2022 and on tour