Review: Blood Brothers at the Orchard Theatre

Willy Russell’s classic musical Blood Brothers finally closed at the Phoenix Theatre in 2012 after 24 years, but the show’s extraordinary sell-out success on tour proves there’s plenty of life still in it – and judging by the packed auditorium at the Orchard Theatre last night, that’s not about to change any time soon. A story that seamlessly slips from laugh-out-loud humour to devastating tragedy in the blink of an eye, Blood Brothers never fails to grip the audience firmly by the heartstrings and pull us, sobbing, to our feet for a protracted standing ovation.

Set in Liverpool, the show explores a nature versus nurture debate through the story of the Johnstone twins, Mickey and Eddie (Sean Jones and Mark Hutchinson). With one too many mouths to feed and a husband who’s run for the hills, their mother (Lyn Paul) agrees to give one of her unborn sons away to her wealthy employer (Sarah Jane Buckley), who can’t have children of her own. Raised in very different homes, the brothers grow up knowing nothing of each other, but fate intervenes to repeatedly bring them together, with dramatic consequences that ultimately prove tragic for everyone.

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There’s not a huge amount I can say about Blood Brothers that I haven’t said before; this was my fourth visit and not much has changed in terms of the staging or design in Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright’s production, which gives the show a comforting familiarity (also, why mess with a winning formula?). This even includes the cast; Blood Brothers is a show that seems to have an incredible power to retain cast members, and it’s a pleasure to see veterans Lyn Paul, often described as the definitive Mrs Johnstone, and Sean Jones, who’s rapidly becoming – for me at least – the definitive Mickey, reprising their roles. Both continue to display the necessary energy, both physical and emotional, to make their characters and their journey compelling, and are complemented by equally strong performances from Dean Chisnall as the Narrator, Mark Hutchinson as Mickey’s charming, well-spoken twin Eddie, and Alison Crawford as Linda, the girl who inadvertently comes between the brothers.

Perhaps one of the secrets of Blood Brothers‘ success is that it’s not your typical musical. With the exception of the well-known finale, Tell Me It’s Not True, in which a mother’s heartbreak routinely reduces most of the audience to a weeping mess, there aren’t really any dramatic “belt out the big solo” numbers, and instead each of the characters gets their own signature theme, which recurs throughout the show – most notably Shoes Upon the Table, the Narrator’s ominous warning, which returns no fewer than six times. As a result, the music feels like a much more natural part of the story, and the action can continue uninterrupted without pausing to make way for big showpieces.

The other unique thing about Blood Brothers is that it’s very funny, which is surprising considering our looming knowledge from the very beginning of the tragedy to come. The enjoyable sight of adults playing mischievous children and awkward teenagers guarantees a lot of laughs, and the whole script is shot through with a cheeky Scouse humour that constantly catches us unawares, so when things suddenly turn serious in Act 2, it’s all the more shocking.

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The show might leave us a bit emotionally battered, but it’s worth it, and obviously I’m not alone in thinking this; Blood Brothers has a loyal following who willingly return to have our hearts broken again and again for the sheer pleasure of watching the story and its characters develop. This production doesn’t add anything new, but why mess with something that’s already perfect as it is?

Blood Brothers is at the Orchard Theatre until 26th November.

Review: Blood Brothers at the Marlowe Theatre

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.

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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.

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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.

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Picture: Lorne Campbell / Guzelian

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.