It’s hard to believe that Willy Russell’s iconic play, Blood Brothers is now in its’ 33rd year of production. Who’d have thought it would have endured this long and still be going strong? Bill Kenwright first produced the show in 1987. I remember seeing the play all those years ago when Barbara Dickson was in the starring role when I first enjoyed it at the Liverpool Playhouse and I was looking forward to this latest production starring Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone. Among the actresses who have taken on the pivotal role of Mrs Johnstone in the nature verses nurture story are Kiki Dee, Stephanie Lawrence, Melanie C, Clodagh Rodgers, and four of the Nolan sisters, Maureen, Bernie, Denise and Linda. Hard to believe it was originally premiered at Fazakerley Comprehensive School in November 1981.
I can’t help pondering what the continual appeal of the show is. I can understand the connection between Liverpool audiences and their allegiance to the show but this story appeals to people everywhere. Looking around the theatre, the age ranges of the audience were vast, from youngsters to those old enough to have seen the show many times. All generations were well represented from pensioners to teenagers, young married twosomes and middle-aged couples, youngsters and groups of females on a night out. The ratio of males to females was also about equal and the man behind me was roaring with laughter at the comedy in the piece. The more mature theatre-goers seemed to enjoy the humour in the performance the most as a lot of it was concentrated on reminiscences from the past, as where the references to shops such as George Henry Lee, a thriving department store from the era the play was written, now long gone. It seems that the beauty of Blood Brothers is that it resonates no matter how old you are. Whether it’s the depiction of teenager anxiety or a young deserted mum struggling alone to raise a large family and having to make the most difficult decision of her life, or mid-life regret, there is something for everyone to take away.
The story is about the age-old conundrum of nature verses nurture told in a simplistic manner set to music. Twins separated at birth and the effect on their personalities as they grow up in entirely different surroundings. One, with his mother, Mrs Johnstone, into a poor family with seven siblings and a family deserted by their father with a mother who can’t cope financially and emotionally. The mother with a cleaning job at a posh house whose owners are desperate for a child, and the wife of the house, when learning that Mrs Johnstone is pregnant with twins and can’t face the reality of two more mouths to feed, strikes up a deal, sworn upon the bible that she will keep one of the twins and raise him as her own. Despite the two families moving house and the mothers trying to keep the twin brothers apart, the boys’ paths cross on numerous occasions as they grow up and one becomes corrupt whilst the other is virtuous. It is only a matter of time before the boys clash with catastrophic consequences. The musical was unusual at the first time of showing of having a narrator. Robbie Scotcher as the narrator in this performance delivered a strong verbal narration and powerful singing voice, helping to move the plot along.
Lyn Paul (one time lead singer with The New Seekers) stole the show as Mrs Johnstone, the tragic matriarch. She has been voted the definitive Mrs Johnstone in the past and it was easy to see why. Her dignified and sympathetic portrayal of the character as we watched her giving away her baby was heart wrenching and her experienced singing voice helped this emotional rollercoaster to tug at the heart strings of everyone in the audience. It must be an emotive, exhausting part to play but she pulls it off in each of her scenes.
There was excellent chemistry between Mickey (Alexander Patmore), Eddie (Joel Benedict) and Linda (Danielle Corlass) and the transitions from fledgling children to awkward teenagers and then to melancholic adults were excellently portrayed by all.
The sets incorporated the familiar Liverpool skyline, the run-down streets of Everton and the newly erected town of Skelmersdale in the ‘country’.
The tragic ending, although expected, was shocking in its depiction and brought a tear to most of the spectators’ eyes and a standing ovation followed with the cast enjoying three encores.
It was an enjoyable return to a much loved musical depicting poverty, class division, love and tragedy in a simplistic form which continues to enthral new-comers and those, like me, who have enjoyed the musical before and long may it last. Willy Russell’s story-telling was in its infancy when he wrote this play but the simplistic tale still has significance and resonance today. The play also features songs written by Russell, including Easy Terms, Marilyn Monroe, Bright New Day, and of course the fabulous anthem Tell Me It’s Not True. I’m sure most of the audience, like me went home humming some of the haunting melodies.
Reviewer: Anne Pritchard
Reviewed: 4th September 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★★