In the interests of doing other things with my free time, this review will be written in approximately thirty minutes. Timer starts…now!
Despite being relatively unchanged since its genesis, ‘Blood Brothers’ proves almost as relevant now as it ever did
The third longest West End musical ever, playing more than 10,000 performances, Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers closed in November 2012, though has remained a staple of the touring circuit ever since. Originally written as a school play, Blood Brothers soon found life as a musical and has tormented GCSE Drama teachers (and doubtless students) ever since, with symbolism and foreshadowing aplenty. No, literally, the narrator literally spells out the trajectory of the story at the top of the show. Everybody knows that the story of the Johnston twins ends in untimely tragedy – with both dead on the same day.
Blood Brothers is a commentary upon the class divide and the sheer difference between the destinies of these two twins signals Willy Russell’s fascination with the nature vs nurture debate. Even down to the way that the policeman’s demeanour is entirely different when speaking to Mrs Johnston about her child, compared to the way that they joke with Mr Lyons about Eddie’s foolish tomfoolery tellingly indicates the social divide.
For those who have escaped Willy Russell’s torment, Blood Brothers tells the tale of two twins, separated at birth, leading to vastly different lives. Mrs Johnston (Niki Evans), already a single mother of seven, learns that she is expecting twins and reels, unable to comprehend how she’d be able to support them both. That is, until Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), who Mrs Johnston cleans for, offers to take one of the babies, having struggled for many years to conceive a baby of her own. Backed into a corner, and dreaming of her child wanting for nothing, Mrs Johnston agrees, sealing the fate of both boys before they are even born.
For Mickey (Sean Jones), the child who is kept, that means a working class life, leaving school to work in a factory and to suffer incredible hardship during the economic downturn. For Eddie (Joel Benedict), the child taken away, he lives a sheltered and pampered life, with his parents buying him the best education, enabling him to live a stable, unfettered and successful life. Meeting as children, the pair become “blood brothers” and, though separated into different families, their lives become inexorably intertwined with disastrous consequences.
Throughout it all, the narrator (Robbie Scotcher) lingers on the periphery, condemning the two mothers for their actions and warning them of the dire repercussions set to follow.
Despite many of the elements of the story still feeling resonant: the commentary upon the birth lottery is just as truthful now as it was in the late 50s – 70s where this story is set, some parts of the story feel slightly dated. For example, the narrator places far too much blame upon Mrs Johnston and Mrs Lyons, failing to recognise the many personal and economic factors that affected that decision, and passing far too much judgement on a mother giving up her baby in order to secure them a better life. That seems like a very old, Catholic way of thinking, as neither woman meant any harm on either of the babies, and Mrs Johnston was forced by circumstance and essentially emotionally manipulated by Mrs Lyons in the first place.
Additionally, the treatment of Mickey’s adult mental illness would definitely appear differently were this to be a modern musical. Even though it demonstrates the attitudes of people of the time, beseeching him to stop taking medication because he “doesn’t need them” after his prison stay, the show itself – be that direction, book, performance – doesn’t do enough to counteract this message and, though there will be many in the audience who have a more modern interpretation of mental illness, the implicit messaging present there should be addressed.
The orchestrations also seem a product of their time, with each number relying quite heavily on synthesisers which can appear distracting and can sometimes veer the onstage content into something resembling melodrama.
The staging and set themselves could also have been updated. Still performing the original West End production, directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson, even small set pieces coming off and on doesn’t prevent the onstage action from appearing slightly stagnant. There wasn’t terribly much movement and, while that could be argued that it reflects the trapped state of each of the characters, it still could do more and, now that it is 35 years old, likely could be reinterpreted by some new directors and allow fresh eyes upon the material itself.
However, that’s a minor quibble. The performance itself is nothing short of spectacular. Essentially a dramatic play with songs (applause is saved merely for the end of acts), each performer clearly puts their all into every moment, and the faces at bows clearly convey the sheer depths of emotion that each has mined.
Niki Evans is of course the heart of the show, and her acting more than matches her spectacular voice. Whether it’s a quiet wistfulness as in “Easy Terms”, or palpable distress in “Tell Me It’s Not True”, she is a commanding presence. Similarly, so is Carly Burns as Linda. Charting Linda’s growth from a child to an adult, she ably conveys Linda’s conflict between the two twins and how she feels herself being pulled towards each of them.
Sean Jones brings many shades to Mickey, taking him from a carefree, over-exuberant child, to an idealistic teenager, to jaded young adult and, finally, a broken, downtrodden man. It’s a role that he has played for years, and it is clear within his portrayal that he has an intimate knowledge of the character. Opposite him is Joel Benedict as Eddie, a character whose naïveté is more often than not used for comic relief, but Benedict manages to give him suitable nuance to counteract the certain lack of worldliness that Eddie possesses. Entitled and clueless, but incredibly affable, Eddie is wonderfully likeable throughout and makes the tragic ending all the more harder to endure.
Regardless of one’s personal tastes on the material, Blood Brothers is utterly unique amongst its peers. Quite the opposite to many new musicals which choose spectacle over substance, Blood Brothers is understated and commanding, with fierce emotional heft. The two acts are wholly different experiences, with act one’s levity giving way to act two’s fierce unravelling towards its inevitable conclusion. Like watching a freight train coming off the tracks, it does what all good tragedies do: it moves you. Whether that’s despair, or anger, or frustration, there are very few who could watch Blood Brothers and not have an opinion over the actions of Mrs Johnston and Mrs Lyons and the impact it had upon their children – or indeed their frustration that the two twins, while so very different, shared an incredible bond, and never got to live with the true knowledge of their connection.
Blood Brothers continues its tour throughout 2022 with runs at Manchester, Malvern, Bath, Barnstable, High Wycombe, Peterborough, York, Tunbridge Wells, Derby, Truro, and Mold