27th October 2014
Blood Bothers. A musical.
Book, music and lyrics by Willy Russell.
Directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright.
De Montfort Hall, 27th October to 1st November.
Our rating: ****
So, who is Willy Russell?
A British dramatist, composer and lyricist who you might remember for Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine and Our Day Out. Born near Liverpool and educated at its University, we are told that Russell was ‘an only child of working-class parents with a troubled marriage.’ So, his musical Blood Brothers does seem to have a fair bit of biographical content. As a playwright, his first success was with John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert. Educating Rita came in 1980 and won him the Laurence Oliver award, coming out soon afterwards as a film starring Michael Cain and Julie Waters.
What about Blood Brothers?
Russell followed up his success with Educating Rita with Blood Brothers which, after opening in Liverpool, went to The Phoenix Theatre in London where it won another Olivier prize – for best new musical. Bill Kenwright’s production ran for 24 years and enjoyed sell-out successes in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. The New York Times heralded it as the ‘most popular British musical of all time.’ Strange! They must have forgotten about about Oliver, The Sound of Music, Cats, Evita, The Boyfriend, The Rocky Horror Show, The Lion King, Les Misérables, Phantom…
So what is Blood Brothers about?
Set in Liverpool of the 1960s and 70s, it tells the tale of twin boys – Mickey and Edward – separated at birth, one growing up in a working-class family and other being brought up in an affluent home. Although the boys became childhood friends, they never knew of their kinship. As teenagers they both fell in love with the same girl, who Mickey eventually marries. The boy’s natural mother keeps secret the fact they she gave one of them away to her employer, a wealthy but childless lady, who employed her as a cleaner. The story portrays the class divide, the power of superstition, the impact of local authority housing policies, the twisting nature of fate, the up and downs of life…
In fact it is a fairly simple tale that uses familiar scenarios that we have all seen before. The story line is helped along by the narrator (said and sung by Kristofer Harding). The plot is said to be loosely based on the novel The Corsican Brothers by Alexander Dumas, which has a somewhat similar plot and has been made into several plays and films. The first half of the show is jovial and amusing, an almost pantomime-ish comedy. The second act is a dark, disturbing tragedy that draws to a shattering dénouement, which I won’t spoil…
Any good songs in it?
None that I can remember. This is not a show I had seen before; and it didn’t leave me with any tunes that I could whilstle on the way home. But the score includes A Bright New Day, Marilyn Munroe and Tell Me It’s Not True, which are said to be ‘memorable.’ The cast at the dmh were fantastic, the singing was great, the orchestra was good and the dance routines were tolerable. The two leads roles, Mickey (Sean Jones) and Edward (Joel Benedict) were well casted and their performances and characterisations were convincing. Likewise, working class mum Mrs. Johnstone (Maureen Nolan) and posh lady Mrs. Lyons (Kate Jarman) were similarly well casted and their characters ably portrayed. The rest of the cast were somewhat cardboard cut-outs but that did not get in the way. Blood Brothers is a powerfully moving show, packed with compelling scenes and chortle inducing vignettes that take the audience on a roller coaster of farce, tragedy, comedy and catharsis. It’s stuff you can laugh at and cry with. The dmh audience gave the show its traditional standing ovation.
It was a good production then?
It was. The set was well crafted, although the backdrop used in the first act showed a city scape that looked more like London than Liverpool and the second act’s backdrop was a decidedly unimpressive depiction of a rural landscape. But, these are minor details. The cast’s leading artists brought their characters to life and handled the tear-jerking moments with satisfying mastery. It was a well-crafted show that was strong on timing, professionally sung and orchestrated and its technical aspects…
Did you enjoy it?
I did. Even if the word ‘enjoy’ is possibly less than apt. This haunting, emotionally charged epic tale of love, family, fate and loyalty left me feeling somewhat sell-shocked and a little drained but then I prefer something that pulls at the heart-strings, lifts the spirits only to send them crashing into a harrowing darkness – not unlike the kind of stuff we will experience when La Traviata comes to Leicester and it’s certainly true that Blood Brothers has won critical acclaim from the provincial press during its tour of the local theatres. Sean Jones‘s portrayal of Mickey was impressive, particularly when he plays the adult character as a drug-addicted, unemployed, ex-prisoner – a real show-stopper. Joel Benedict‘s portrayal of posh twin Edward was astute and compelling. Pretty much Liverpool’s take on West Side Story, Blood Brothers is not a show you would easily forget.