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Blood Brothers

by on 12 February 2020

Just a Sign of the Times

Blood Brothers

by Willy Russell

Bill Kenwright at Richmond Theatre until 15th February, then on tour until 31st October

Review by Andrew Lawston

Blood Brothers has been described by writer, lyricist, and composer Willy Russell himself as “the musical that’s loved by people who hate musicals”, and this would seem as good an explanation as any for the near-capacity audience at Richmond Theatre on a cold Tuesday night in February. It’s a show full of much-loved songs, but more than enough spoken drama that it feels like a play with music rather than a full-blown musical.

The story – a struggling working class mother can’t afford to raise the twin boys she’s expecting, so promises one to her affluent employer – is timeless in its simplicity, but is infused throughout with commentary on Britain’s class structure which is as relevant today, entering the third decade of the 21st Century, as it was back in the 1980s when the musical premiered.

Blood Brothers - Promo (previous cast )2

Andy Walmsley’s simple but effective set has stood the test of time: a run-down street with a backdrop that switches between the Royal Liver Building and a pastoral scene, with various other set items flown in as required. The gantry and the balconies provide an effective multi-level playing area for the cast, under the tight direction of Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright.

The eponymous brothers may dominate most of the play’s action, but Mrs Johnstone is the character who carries her bat throughout this two and a half hour section, and she gets most of the best songs. As such she’s usually viewed as the lead character and this cast is no exception, with Lyn Paul showing a great range both in her acting performance and in songs that range from the haunting Easy Terms to the (initially) playful Marilyn Monroe.

Robbie Scotcher takes on the Shakespearean role of the Narrator, cutting an imposing and often intimidating figure on the stage. My wife named him “the bouncer of death” due to both his physical presence and his sober dark suit. He is an almost constant figure somewhere on stage, watching the action unfold, and only occasionally interacting. It’s something of a surprise to read the programme notes and realise that he only really has one song – although he gets to reprise it on several occasions, becoming ever more ominous as the story develops.

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There’s a frantic pace to this production, and the audience only has to blink for the twins to be seven (but nearly eight) years old. Mickey (Alexander Patmore, the roguish beating heart of the play) and Eddie (Joel Benedict, playing the golden-haired Eddie with distinct cheeky relish) reunite, and spend the rest of the first half having carefree childish adventures. In an otherwise blistering chronology, this part of the story seems to have the most time to breathe, and rightly so. Quite apart from the comedy opportunities provided by adult actors depicting a gang of boisterous eight year olds, these scenes develop the audience’s sympathy for these characters, and throwaway elements become motifs throughout the rest of the show.

It may be opening night glitches on the mixing desk, or the actors straining the younger voices they’re using at this point, but these scenes do run into occasional problems distinguishing dialogue when all the “children” are on stage, and in parts of the lively number Kids Game the vocals become somewhat buried under Scott Alder’s small but impressively versatile band. Parts of Miss Jones suffer the same fate, as redundancy and economic uncertainty are intercut with and overshadow the celebration of Mickey and Linda’s wedding. However, the lyrics certainly shine through on the big ensemble numbers like Bright New Day and Tell Me It’s Not True.

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In the second half, with the twins in their teenage years and beyond, the tone darkens quickly, and characters like Linda (Danielle Corlass in a wide-ranging performance) come into their own. Conversely, Mickey’s delinquent older brother Sammy becomes less interesting as he ages from the cocky leader of the childhood gang into a walking plot device to get the other characters in trouble. Paula Tappenden’s immaculate Mrs Lyons is credible as she deteriorates from friendly middle class housewife to a neurotic and vindictive mess. Her final act in the show defies logic, but Tappenden’s performance is strong enough to suggest that it’s motivated purely by spite.

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The rest of the cast bring a brisk pace and bright energy to the whole show, but while this is very much the same production of Blood Brothers that I’ve seen on a couple of occasions over the years, I felt the overall tone was a bit darker. There’s underlying menace even to the carefree scenes from the characters’ childhood, and the Johnstone children’s legs are slathered with streaks of dark make-up to suggest a certain level of mud and squalor. Their childish jokes and insults seem pointed and hurtful, and even the delivery of Eddie’s first swear word to his mother seems to have a certain weight to it. Hints of the show’s tragic finale are never far away with this powerful current cast, even at the lightest moments.

But however the production has evolved over the years, it heads inexorably to the same conclusion, and if there is a dry eye in the house at the end of the soaring climactic rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True, it certainly doesn’t belong in our section of the audience, or indeed to any of the front of house staff that we pass on our way out of the building.

Andrew Lawston
February 2020

Photography courtesy of Bill Kenwright Productions

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