Willy Russell’s legendary Liverpool-based musical is on a 14-week tour of the UK and this week plays at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. The show has been a West End staple for most of the years since its inception in the mid-1980s, but it remains a crowd-pleaser as the packed auditorium last night attested.
It’s not hard to see why, since it so effectively blends together many elements of great theatre. In its simplest dramatic terms, ‘Blood Brothers’ is the tale of twins Mickey and Eddie who grow up apart, unaware that they are related. Despite their different backgrounds, Mickey from the slums of working class Liverpool and Eddie from affluence, they are drawn together in friendship. However, this threatens to expose the lie their mothers tell, creating the conflict that drives the story. Unable to afford two extra mouths to feed, cleaner Mrs Johnstone gives up one of her twins to her rich employer, Mrs Lyons, who then severs contact with the biological mother.
Yet ‘Blood Brothers’ is also a devastating critique of the English class system, highlighting how the socio-economic circumstances of your birth generally determine your outcomes later in life. Those born into poverty generally stay and die in poverty. Those from affluence can access better opportunities. It’s true that social mobility has improved in recent decades, but nobody watching ‘Blood Brothers’ could say that its central premise doesn’t ring true. On top of that, Willy Russell uses the technique of the Chorus from Ancient Greek dramaturgy in the character of the Narrator to constantly address the audience directly. His ominous yet omniscient presence, removed from the main action, reminds us of the inevitability of the tragedy to come. This device is seldom used in contemporary plays, but it’s pulled off to brilliant effect here.
Liverpool-based playwrights tend to sentimentalise their home city, and with ‘Blood Brothers’, Russell is no exception. But it’s all done with such good humour that it is never cloying. After the initial set-up, in which Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons seal their deal, much of the first act is incredibly funny. It’s not easy for adult actors to capture childhood innocence and juvenile speech patterns, but this cast is superb at pulling off this illusion, especially Sean Jones, Olivia Sloyan and Timothy Lucas. ‘Blood Brothers’ is at its most emotionally-engaging as the children become teenagers. With deft observation, Russell poignantly captures the endless summer and the limitless dreams of being just seventeen. When the cracks in the friendship begin to show, as Mickey is forced to grow up and face the real world ahead of Eddie, the writing is similarly effective at revealing the end of childhood and the death of innocence.
Audience members who are (like me!) from the Liverpool area will enjoy the references to Skelmersdale, the posh George Henry Lee department store and other such names that only locals would know. At a distance of four decades since its inception, ‘Blood Brothers’ has started to feel like more of a period piece. Some of the cultural references and childhood games have changed, and there are no mobile phones or internet. It’s all rather nostalgic for those of us who remember the 80s, but the story and the truth of the characters is so universal that we hope ‘Blood Brothers’ is still drawing the crowds a century after it opened.
This production of ‘Blood Brothers’ has a top-drawer cast that work brilliantly together, and it’s clear from watching their interactions that a strong bond has formed among members of the company. Last night, understudy Paula Tappenden played Mrs Johnstone and rose to the occasion, delivering a flawless, sympathetic and deeply moving performance. She so perfectly captures the contradiction at the heart of Mrs Johnstone: she radiates motherly love and yet lives with the internal pain of her terrible secret. Sean Jones as her youngest son Mickey is equally impressive. His is the most profound change undertaken by any character, progressing from a sweet, mischievous and adorable little boy through to an embittered and troubled young man. Jones has the audience in the palm of his hand for every step of this journey, and we experience the emotional highs and lows with him. It’s an exceptionally good portrayal of Mickey. There is excellent chemistry between Jones and Olivia Sloyan, who plays the love of his life Linda. She brings the part a lot of humour and dignity, offering the audience that vital optimism. Finally, Joe Sleight provides a creditable foil as the posh and well-meaning Eddie. The scenes between the three actors are a joy to behold.
A note perfect live orchestra plays Willy Russell’s sumptuous score. Everyone will have their own favourite song. For us, it’s hard to look beyond ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, the showstopper that delivers the gut-punch, which was so brilliantly belted out by Paula Tappenden and had half of the audience sobbing. The feel-good ‘Bright New Day’ brings the curtain down at the end of the first act and is inevitably the song that rattles around in your head afterwards. That’s if you’re not finding words or phrases that rhyme with ‘Marilyn Monroe’.
Relentless cheering and applause ensured that the audience brought the cast back onto the stage for three curtain calls at the end of the show, and many were still clapping even as the safety curtain came down. During the performance there were audible gasps and cries at moments of high drama. There were more than a few folk holding handkerchiefs to their eyes as they filed out of the auditorium. Proof that ‘Blood Brothers’ is a show that hits you in the heart and is the definition of once seen, never forgotten. What an amazing experience to share the show with an audience that was so completely under the spell of the brilliant cast from start to finish. We laughed, we cried, and we loved every second of it.
Cast: Paula Tappenden, Richard Munday, Sean Jones, Joe Sleight, Olivia Sloyan, Timothy Lucas, Gemma Brodrick Director: Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright Writer: Willy Russell Theatre: The Churchill, Bromley Running time: 175 mins Performance dates: 28th February – 4th March 2023 Buy tickets for ‘Blood Brothers’