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Does Blood Brothers live up to its reputation? - review

★★★

Everybody knows about the last scene of Blood Brothers. Two gunshots fired following by a blood-curling scream.


Photo by Jack Merriman


These aren’t spoilers as such - the play ends where it starts. And Willy Russell’s seminal piece has barely stopped for touring since concluding 24 years in the West End. The tale of the Johnstone twins holds a mirror image to Liverpool in the mid 20th century whilst questioning nature over nurture and the dangers of the class system.


Blood Brothers opens with Mrs Johnstone (an instantly loved Niki Colwell Evans) falling in love with a man who takes her dancing. By 25 she has seven children and is working as a cleaner at a wealthy household when she discovers she has two more on the way. Unable to have children herself Mrs Lyons (Sarah Jane Buckley) suggests that she takes one of the twins with the promise of keeping in contact. As the boys grow up they find each other as friends, much to the despair of their frightened mothers, and later reconnect as teens - sharing girls, adventures and dreams.


Sean Jones tumbles on to the stage as the boisterous young Mickey. The youngest child on the red brick estate (Andy Walmsley’s simple set plays with perspective of terraced houses covered in graffiti), he idolises his oldest brother Sammy (Timothy Lucas). In contrast, Joe Sleight’s Eddie is wide-eyed and easily influenced by Mickey’s swagger. Alongside friend Linda (a comedic Gemma Brodrick) they run the streets firing their air gun and sharing sweets. These act one performances are, in a way, magical. They’re energetic and cheeky, with some light, funny moments. It’s an exploration into boyhood and a lovely montage scene narrated by Scott Anson reaffirms the coming-of-age story Blood Brothers really is. Nick Riching’s warm lighting compliments the sentiment, before crashing us into darkness when things come tumbling down.


As well as being peppered with curse words and scouse slang, Blood Brothers is underpinned by fear. Mrs Johnstone’s superstitions greatly affect Mrs Lyons as her anxieties follow her like the Narrator in the shadows. Willy Russell’s songs amplify the melodrama bursting into snippets of a rock opera (played with aplomb by the band supervised by Matt Malone) whilst other tunes have elements of ska and folk. But there’s only really a few numbers that cut through; act two’s ensemble piece about lay-offs ”Take a Letter Miss Jones”, Evans’ dreamy melancholic “Marilyn Monroe” and the quiet tragedy of “Tell Me It’s Not True”.


This production, directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, has really done the rounds. It runs like clockwork and to full houses and great applause. But that could eventually be its downfall. Some parts are starting to feel tired in looks and in the storytelling. Despite its 2hr30 running time some things are left unexplained - like an incident on a bus, and a classroom scene - make the second half feel a bit of a slog. Despite repeated lyrics about dancing, there’s little of it. Mickey’s athleticism opens up into his childhood mind but is severely underused. Thunderous moments of the book’s turmoil boil down to ripped up paper. And we never see the child that is all so important to the character’s development plot.


Regardless, the three central younger cast are stellar. They tear away from their whimsical, hopeful childhoods and become broken and bitter reflections of their choices. Linda, torn after being left alone. Mickey, depressed after losing everything after making one wrong choice. Eddie, feeling isolated and alone.


Whether it's the simple storytelling of a truly tangible story, or the croons about an old movie star, people just can't seem to resist returning to Blood Brothers - a show famed now for its reputation. As a staple for school students, surely it'll continue to pass through generations.

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