Book, Music and Lyrics: Willy Russell
Director: Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson
80s musicals have the most extraordinary longevity and with Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables still going strong in the West End, it is interesting to revisit Blood Brothers, another 80s stalwart currently on an extended UK tour. Bill Kenwright’s production of Willy’ Russell’s extraordinary musical played for 24 years at the Albery and then the Phoenix Theatre and, while this touring production is virtually unchanged right down to young Mickey’s oversized green tank top, it is surprising how unusual this story still feels in 2020.
Blood Brothers is one of the few examples of a musical focusing on a working-class family with a middle-aged woman at its heart. And looking around the big musicals of the twenty-first century filled with geeky schoolboys, American movie adaptations and jukebox creations, where in modern musical theatre are the working-class stories about education, limited destinies and class… well it’s still only in Blood Brothers.
Compared favourably to Marilyn Monroe, the young Mrs Johnstone is wooed and married with seven children by her early twenties. When her husband abandons her, she discovers she is pregnant with twins and no way to support her growing brood. So, Mrs Johnstone makes a fateful pact with her barren employer Mrs Lyons, promising her one of the boys. But fearful and paranoid Mrs Lyons insists that if either twin discovers the truth about his origins, they will both die instantly.
Blood Brothers was and still is an incredibly powerful piece of theatre and this production retains the emphasis on Greek tragedy which brings a brooding inevitability to events. The Narrator stalks the action, peering around corners and loitering in doorways observing the action as though he is personally willing on the predetermined conclusion, while the prevalence of guns, first as a child’s toy and later ominous weapons of assault, feel portentous. But Blood Brothers is all about the inequality of opportunity between the classes and how Mickey’s life in particular is laid out from birth, not just doomed to an untimely death, but first to suffer all the indignities of working-class deprivation, unemployment and destruction of soul, which makes the 20-minutes of this production that chart his final decline so devastating.
Of course, it is also filled with absolutely cracking songs, many of them heartbreaking psychological studies of motherhood, poverty and guilt that have lost none of their impact in the intervening years. Easy Terms, My Child and the tear-filled finale Tell Me It’s Not True are momentous tunes, refrains from which appear repeatedly throughout the show to remind the audience of the reckoning to come, while the Narrator’s fierce rock tune The Devil’s Got Your Number ratchets up the tension. There is plenty of fun too in the vibrant childhood sections with Kids’ Game and That Guy as the unknown brothers cross paths again and again.
During its West End run, the great and the good took on the leading roles of Mrs Johnstone and the Narrator, here played by Lyn Paul and Robbie Scotcher. Paul sings with an emotional intensity that drives the show in what remains an incredible musical theatre role, while Scotcher is charismatic and detached as the Narrator who evokes the poetry of Russell’s lines to great effect. Mickey is played with exuberance by Alexander Patmore who later finds a touching depth and sensitivity as the world is pulled in on him. Middle-class counterpart Eddie (Joel Benedict) is sweet, naïve and so clearly a million miles away from the reality of his true family’s circumstances, while Danielle Corlass’ Linda grows from a young girl to a suffering woman, evoked so poignantly by the image of three mothers pointedly left to cope at the end of the show.
Arguably some of the acting is patchy, the story covers a lot of ground at considerable speed and the necessities of touring reduce the orchestra to keyboard, guitar and computer, but the strength of Blood Brothers can withstand it. Nostalgic and very much caught in its 80s’ setting – the presentation of children, teachers and playing in the streets seems a lifetime ago – but it still feels radical, refreshing and relevant to see an ordinary and sympathetic working-class story in musical form, one that almost 40 years on can still leave you sobbing all the way home.
Runs until 15 March and then touring