As musicals go, this one probably needs little introduction. Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers began life as a school play, and opened in the West End in 1983, before running for 24 years from 1988. I still remember it as the only show that’s ever caused me to openly sob throughout the curtain call, and I’m sad that I only got to see it once before it closed in 2012.
But hurrah! Blood Brothers is back, and embarking on a national tour, which kicked off at Wimbledon last week, before transferring to the Marlowe in Canterbury. Directed by Bob Tomson, it stars Marti Pellow (who old folk like me remember from his Wet Wet Wet days) as the narrator and Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone, a struggling single mother who agrees to give one of her newborn twins away to her wealthy employer. The two boys grow up in very different surroundings, but somehow keep finding each other, with ultimately heartbreaking consequences.
But in case you think that all sounds a bit depressing, never fear, because Blood Brothers is also one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in ages. It’s set in Liverpool, with a cheeky Scouse personality, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – the script is happy to acknowledge the fact that the same actors are playing more than one part. But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Blood Brothers is the way it has adult actors playing the characters throughout their lives, beginning at age 7 (nearly 8). It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does – the cast capture brilliantly all the mannerisms of children, and after a while you completely forget they’re grown ups in kids’ clothes. And then when they do grow up, and graduate from toy guns to real ones, you find you really care what happens to them.
Blood Brothers is an unusual musical, in that it only actually has a few songs, which are repeated throughout the show, with slight variations. Each character has one or two themes – Mrs Johnstone tells the story of her family through the recurring Marilyn Monroe, while the Narrator warns the characters of their impending doom with The Devil’s Got Your Number, and the twins, Mickey and Eddie, wish themselves into each other’s shoes with That Guy. However, that said, there are a few standalone numbers – Eddie’s wistful love song to Linda, I’m Not Saying a Word, is particularly poignant, especially given what happens next.
I was intrigued to see Marti Pellow on stage, having heard mixed reviews of his recent performance in Evita. His Narrator prowls the stage with intense eyes and moments of almost violent aggression as he reminds the two mothers of what they’ve done. Compared to some of the other characters, the Narrator doesn’t have a huge amount to do vocally, but this is a character who’s all about presence, and Pellow certainly delivers on that front. Meanwhile Maureen Nolan reprises her role as Mrs Johnstone, which I always think must be one of the most emotionally demanding parts to play, calling as it does for extremes of happiness and devastation. Like Niki Evans, who I saw in this role before, Nolan looks shattered at the curtain call, as well she might; her closing scene is one of the most powerful in musical theatre.
But while these may be the ‘headline’ members of the cast, there are plenty of other standout performances: Paula Tappenden is brilliant as the well to do Mrs Lyons, descending into madness as a result of her own made-up superstition. And I doubt there was anyone in the theatre who didn’t leave a little bit in love with Sean Jones, who plays Mickey, the ultimate cheeky chappy. Joel Benedict and Danielle Corlass complete the trio of inseparable friends who ultimately – and perhaps predictably – find themselves embroiled in a love triangle.
If you’ve seen Blood Brothers before, you’ll know it’s brilliant. If you haven’t, I urge you to seize this second chance to catch it. It’s a story about family, and the enduring debate over nature versus nurture. And despite being written in the 1980s, it still feels very contemporary, with its questions about class and poverty. With great music and memorable characters, this is a show not to be missed.
Blood Brothers is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until 26th September.