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Blood Brothers

by on 22 February 2023

Fast Tracksides

Blood Brothers

by Willy Russell

Bill Kenwright Productions at Richmond Theatre until 25th February, then on tour until 29th April

Review by Brent Muirhouse

The iconic Blood Brothers has been performed in so many guises since its first performance in October 1981, that it would be easy to wonder if it still seems relevant and engrossing for audiences as musical theatre almost 42 years later.  Yet this production, directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright at Richmond Theatre is a stunning showcase of the power of theatre in both displaying both story and melody, in an inseparable tandem much like the play’s eponymous siblings. 

Despite moving into its fifth decade of performance, Willy Russell’s play explores themes of class, family, and the consequences of our choices, which seem even more relevant in a United Kingdom with an increasingly unequal balance of economic opportunity.  It tells the story of two brothers in Liverpool – Mickey and Eddie – who are separated at birth and grow up on opposite sides of the tracks (or more literally, a park).  The play examines the impact of their different upbringings (Mickey on the poverty line and Eddie highly privileged) and how it affects their lives as they grow into adulthood.

The music at the centre of the production was buoyant and vivacious, mixing rousing musical classic standards (like big-hitting Marilyn Monroe) with unexpected guitar shredding on the Narrator’s Shoes upon the Table.  The Narrator (Richard Munday) leant into the brash rock and roll number, with an unnerving performance as a recurring devil on the shoulder; highly appropriate due to the lyrics in his big leitmotif.  The lead actors delivered captivating performances throughout but balanced this with depth and nuance to their characters in the everyday details of their respective Merseyside lives.  Niki Colwell Evans, in particular, was a standout as Mrs.  Johnstone, delivering bittersweet symphonies that even local resident and The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft would’ve been proud of, and probably may have heard blasting out of the eaves of the old theatre.  Such was Colwell Evans’ power in her vocals, that it was notable when Mrs.  Johnstone was off stage, just by the added energy and wattage elevating the music when she returned.

Andy Walmsley’s set design was also impressive, with terraced houses in the first half transforming into different dwellings in the second half, framing the change in the characters’ circumstances.  The slightly distorted approach had the same adult actors playing kids, then later growing into their adult selves, yet so affected by circumstances of youth.  This felt like a commentary on the permeability of the callousness of apparently harmless playground games, which ultimately create lasting fractures in the fabric of society.

But perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of this production was the way in which it tackled some weighty themes without feeling heavy-handed.  Comedy was blended in nicely into quick-witted responses in the dialogue, keeping the audience engaged and entertained throughout.  Some of the best one-liners fell to Sean Jones and Joe Sleight as Mickey and Eddie respectively.  Their turns as the brothers were in sync throughout, playing off each other’s energy in a way that felt natural and organic in moments of darkness as well as humour.  Olivia Sloyan delivered a performance that captured the evolution of Linda, from “one of the gang” as a child, to adulthood and all its subtleties very effectively and with great skill. 

Overall, Blood Brothers at the Richmond Theatre was a stunning production that surely reminded any of the near full-house of the power of musical theatre to be poignant in moving and inspiring, as well as be foot-tappingly enjoyable.  (Brent Muirhouse still hasn’t got Shoes on the Table out of his brain’s catchy ditty chamber).  Willy Russell’s script remains as powerful as ever, and the talented cast and crew brought it to life fully.  Tomson and Kenwright’s production demonstrated an across-the-board reminder of the incredible skill and dedication of those who work in this art form.  Blood Brothers entertained and affected in equal measure and, leaving the theatre to the streetlights of suburbia, whilst I had musical memories to hum along to, these were accompanied by more solemn ponderings of the imbalance of society and the role of class, remaining stitched into this country today.

Brent Muirhouse, February 2023

Photography by Jack Merriman

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