Music, Book & Lyrics: Willy Russell
Directors: Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright
Closing in on the fortieth anniversary of its original 1983 Liverpudlian production, Bill Kenwright continues to produce firm British favourite and musical theatre staple Blood Brothers. Like many other number one touring productions, Willy Russell’s much-loved musical is embarking on a huge UK tour as social distancing regulations are relaxed – much to the enjoyment of the full house eager to experience live theatre again.
Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre is transformed into the back streets and alleys of 1950s and 1960s inner city Liverpool with the help of Andy Walmsley’s red brick set and twinkling Liver Building cyclorama. The simple story at the heart of Blood Brothers is something that has struck a chord with British audiences for decades despite it being told in various guises throughout literature and drama for decades. When twins Mickey and Edward (Eddie) are separated at birth their futures have very different paths. Mickey (Alexander Patmore) will grow up on the tough streets of Liverpool, siblings aplenty to keep him company and in trouble – none more so than his older brother Sammy (Daniel Taylor). Whereas Edward (Joel Benedict), privileged, educated and an only child, will crave for nothing in his life other than love. It is the classic tale of nature versus nurture, a black and white dichotomy that makes for interesting and clean storytelling.
When Mrs Johnstone (Lyn Paul), a cleaning lady to Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden) learns she is expecting twins it is simply one mouth too far to feed as a single mother. Unable to have children of her own a plan is hatched to secretly give Mrs Lyons one of the babies. The rest of the story writes itself as each twin, very different on the surface, discover each other, become ‘blood brothers’, remain best friends and fall in love with the same girl, Linda (Danielle Corlass) – all without the knowledge of who the other really is. The plot races towards its tragic conclusion all too fast, foretold in a prologue at the very beginning of the show. It is a story everyone in the theatre knows will end badly – not least because most will have seen it before!
Russell originally wrote the play version to be performed in schools around Liverpool before being transformed into the musical phenomenon it is today. Very much rooted in the theatre-in-education movement of the early 1980s it retains much of the cultural influences of the time. The score is electronic drums and synth heavy, the reverb on the actor’s microphones occasionally evoking the style of a corny 1980s pop music video. Whilst for some this may date the production for others it is a taste of nostalgia, a retro comfort blanket to anchor the production in the decade it was written. Part of the charm of Russell’s script is its pace, spanning the lives of Mickey and Eddie from birth to mid-20s, yet managing to make them fully rounded characters. Russell employs a devil-like narrator (Robbie Scotched) to ‘glue’ the scenes together – breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience in rhyming couplets – an ominous warning reminder of the Faustian pact Mrs Johnstone made with Mrs Lyons when she gave up one of her children.
Blood Brothers veteran Lyn Paul returns as Mrs Johnstone. A firm favourite in the role over many years she proves that she is still on top of her game with her powerful and controlled singing voice. Alexander Padmore excels as Mickey as we enjoy his range from playful child to troubled adult. As love interest Linda, Danielle Corlass also moves impressively from juvenile to adult. Robbie Scotcher menaces as the narrator – an omnipresent portent and looming shadow of superstition and aide-memoire of the price that must be repaid.
This is an enjoyable and impressive production to an audience of enthusiastic fans who gave it a rapturous standing ovation. For those newer to the production there may be sense of wondering why the score feels anchored in the musical fashion of the decade it was written despite it essentially being a period piece. That said, there were some powerful and affecting performances on display in a show that is sure to run for another forty years.
Runs until 23rd October 2021