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.

Blood Brothers

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.

Blood Brothers

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.

Blood Brothers
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.

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Marlowe Theatre

Sometimes you can’t beat a classic. As much fun as it is to see a brand new show, with little or no idea what emotions it’s going to make you feel… sometimes all you really want is to sit back, relax and enjoy a story that’s so familiar you can quote the script along with the actors.

There can’t be too many people of my generation who don’t at least have a rough idea what Dirty Dancing is all about. Boy meets girl, girl carries a watermelon, boy teaches girl to dance. Then they fall in love, boy gets fired but returns for a triumphant final scene which puts everything right with the world.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' & Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' - cTristram Kenton

It’s a total cheese-fest, but that’s why we love it. The producers of Dirty Dancing were always on to a winner by reviving the stage production, because the movie has such a die-hard following that the theatres were bound to be full. Building on that popularity, director Sarah Tipple’s Dirty Dancing is almost an exact replica of the original version; the script, costumes, routines and even some of the actors appear to have been transported straight from Kellerman’s, in the summer of 1963. There are a few additions – references to the political situation of the time, freedom rides, Martin Luther King and the Cuban Missile Crisis – which add a little substance, and minor characters Tito and Mr Schumacher are both given a bigger role. Though none of these changes is a bad thing, the show would probably go down just as well without them; the audience is there for the story they know and love, as fluffy and insubstantial as it might be.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Jessie Hart as 'Baby' - cTristram Kenton

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set uses video screens to recreate the camp in the Catskills, including the iconic lake scene, and a rotating turntable, which gives the show a multi-dimensional feel and allows different stories to unfold simultaneously. In between scenes, we’re given an insight into the wholesome family fun enjoyed at Kellerman’s – sack races, piggy backs and musical chairs – in direct contrast to the far from wholesome activity going on in Johnny’s bedroom.

Leads Jessie Hart and Lewis Kirk have great chemistry; her perkiness and his intensity make for a perfect combination. Unsurprisingly, Lewis Kirk is particularly popular with the female-dominated audience; he could probably have not said a word all night and we’d all still have loved him (and his hips). Carlie Milner steps seamlessly into her stand-in role as Penny, and Georgina Castle is brilliant; her wonderfully terrible performance of Lisa’s Hula is one of the highlights of the show. Meanwhile there’s more comic relief from Kane Verrall; his Neil is much more likeable than the original character, with dance moves that are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, we get to enjoy all the classic music we love – the only song I missed was the full version of She’s Like the Wind. Unlike most musicals, the majority of the numbers are performed by the supporting cast – Natalie Winsor and Matthew Colthart in particular deserve recognition; their performance of the final and best-known number, (I’ve Had) the Time of My Life, is incredible, and more than holds its own alongside the attention-grabbing dance routine.

Dirty Dancing UK tour - Lewis Kirk as 'Johnny' and ensemble - cTristram Kenton

Dirty Dancing is the ultimate feel-good show; you can’t help but leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a skip in your step. It’s a production that’s aware of, and revels in, the imperfections of the story, faithfully reproducing the characters and events that the audience want to see, and not making any serious attempts to change anything. And if it all starts to feel a bit like a hen party at times – well, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ashamed to say that I whooped along with everyone else when Johnny said, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’.

And because I know you’re all waiting for me to say it – yes, I really did have the time of my life.

All photos ©Tristram Kenton

Review: Dead Simple at the Marlowe Theatre

Before I start, a quick health warning: this may not be the play for you if you have a fear of small spaces. Or blood. Or clowns. Or… Oh. I think that’s everything. Moving on…

Michael Harrison thinks his life is perfect. He’s got a successful business, millions in the bank and a beautiful fiancée. But it turns out he’s also really bad at choosing his friends – and after a stag night prank goes disastrously wrong, Michael finds himself buried alive, with no immediate hope of rescue.

It’s the stuff of nightmares – and also the plot of Dead Simple, a novel by Peter James adapted for the stage and currently on tour around the UK. Former Hollyoaks actor Jamie Lomas stars as Michael, with Tina Hobley as his beautiful wife-to-be, Ashley, and Rik Makarem as his best friend and business partner, Mark. Meanwhile Gray O’Brien plays DS Roy Grace, the detective charged with finding Michael before it’s too late.

Dead Simple UK tour
Dead Simple is a carefully crafted thriller, full of twists and keeping the audience guessing at every turn. The play hits the perfect note for a wuss like me – chilling without being terrifying, and messing with your head rather than making you jump out of your skin.

It’s a brave move to try and condense such a complex story into two hours; act one does a great job of establishing the characters and plot, ending with a twist that will have you scratching your head and arguing about what just happened throughout the interval. This leaves the second act with a lot of work to do, and it has to move at breakneck speed to unravel the complicated story before the curtain falls. And so, unsurprisingly, there are a few gaps, not least in the character and back story of Roy Grace – but then, as Peter James’ novel is the first in a series featuring Grace, that was probably to be expected.

What the play lacks in realism and detail, though, it more than makes up for in entertainment and intrigue. In this regard it’s very much like a classic Agatha Christie, which you never for one moment believe could actually happen, but you have a great time watching it all the same. The scenes with Michael in the coffin are particularly well done; Jamie Lomas sounds genuinely petrified. And who knows, maybe he is – it can’t be much fun in there.

Dead Simple UK tour
Another challenge of staging such a complex story is all the locations it has to cover, but Michael Taylor’s multi-level set is more than up to the task, encompassing Michael’s living room, the forest where he’s buried, an underground dungeon and the road outside. We can even see into the coffin – whether we want to or not. Any gaps are filled by the special effects; the car crash scene is a particularly unnerving example of how the play works on your imagination.

The cast are clearly enjoying themselves with the intricate plot, and anticipating the audience’s reaction to each twist (I genuinely squeaked a couple of times; it’s hard not to). Lomas is a charismatic lead, even from inside a coffin, in contrast to Rik Makarem’s Mark, who may be physically free but is weakened by his own indecision. Meanwhile former Grange Hill actor Josh Brown makes an impressive theatrical debut as Davey, a young man obsessed with American crime shows, who inadvertently finds himself starring in one.

Dead Simple UK tour
This play is anything but Dead Simple – but a convoluted plot is saved by clever staging and a strong cast. It may not be great literature, but it’s good fun, and isn’t that what the theatre’s supposed to be about?

Dead Simple is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until Saturday 11th July, before concluding its UK tour in Worthing next week.