Book, Music and Lyrics by Willy Russell
Directed by Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright
Presented by Bill Kenwright Ltd
Nottingham Theatre Royal – Touring
This legendary musical is one of only three to have exceeded 10,000 performances in the West End. I last saw it over twenty years ago, so I am intrigued to see if Blood Brothers has improved with age. Does it just scratch a populist itch, or will it have retained the power both to entertain and inform?
Blood Brothers inspires a fierce loyalty in its audience. As I arrive at the Theatre Royal, there are droves of excited theatregoers waiting to go inside. It is lovely to see a mix of ages, from schoolchildren to grandparents, all looking happy to be here. The house is packed to the rafters, and it is such a pleasure to see audiences heading back post-lockdown.
Written by Willy Russell, Blood Brothers is the classic tale of twins separated at birth who grow up under very different circumstances. Inevitably, they cross paths along the way, which brings devastating repercussions.
Mrs Johnstone (Lyn Paul) is already burdened with a brood of children when she finds herself ‘back in the club’, this time with the aforementioned twins. Sadly or otherwise, her feckless husband has ‘gone dancing’ elsewhere. In contrast, up at ‘the big house’ where Johnstone cleans, Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden) has been struggling to conceive and is desperate for children of her own. A Faustian pact is signed between the two women as the former agrees to hand over one of her babies when the time comes.
Lyn Paul for many fans is the definitive Mrs Johnstone and it is easy to see why. In her farewell tour, she brings the warmth, the wit and the core of steel needed to portray this northern matriarch. Yet the necessary vulnerability is also present and is reflected in her wonderful singing voice. She has a beautiful tone and timbre; sometimes smooth like chocolate, sometimes suitably hard as nails, depending on what the scene demands.
Tonight, Mickey, the son that Mrs Johnstone keeps, is being played by understudy Josh Capper. He is a revelation. Required to age from being ‘nearly eight’ through to adulthood, he plays each stage with thorough conviction. Our sympathies lie with him from his very first entrance and his scenes with Linda (Danielle Corlass) provide several of the show’s best moments. Little gestures such as Mickey wiping his nose on Linda’s sleeve display deft comic touches. Corlass’ performance also stands out. I love the cheekiness she brings to the early scenes, combined with the equally convincing world-weariness of the second act.
Completing the cast is: Hannah Barr (Brenda), Joel Benedict (Eddie), Tim Churchill (Mr Lyons), Grace Galloway (Donna Marie/Miss Jones), Andy Owens (Perkins), Robbie Scotcher (Narrator) and Danny Taylor (Sammy). When the full company come together to sing, the sound is glorious. ‘Bright New Day’ at the end of the first act is a particular highlight.
The set for Blood Brothers is cleverly designed and seamlessly changed, from town to countryside, from affluent living room to municipal town hall. The level of detail incorporated into the props is also very notable. I spy a Silver Cross style pram, a Hoover and a Ewbank carpet sweeper. Even the seats on the bus have a genuine period feel. In conjunction with the impeccable costumes, prim blouses and pearls for Mrs Lyons, a floral housecoat for Mrs Johnstone, we are firmly rooted in a bygone Liverpool.
If, like me, you are a sentimental soul, then you cannot fail to be moved by Blood Brothers. It somehow taps into the universal psyche, in the sense that everyone wants to know where they come from, who their tribe is, and more tellingly……. what if? Its themes are universal. The ‘nature versus nurture’ debate rages on, class inequalities cannot be denied, and the treatment of mental health issues is all part of the zeitgeist.
At the end of the performance the cast receives a standing ovation. A quick glance round and nobody remains in their seat. It would seem that Blood Brothers has lost none of its power to enthral and captivate its audience. For this reviewer, it is better than ever.