When a production is hyped as much as Blood Brothers, one usually finds the real thing to be something of a let down. But Willy Russell’s musical not only lives up to its lofty billing but goes beyond it, providing the most gripping and emotionally charged theatre experience I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit through.
Now in its fourteenth year in the West End, Blood Brothers is set in Liverpool in the 1960s. The story focuses on Mrs Johnstone (Denise Nolan), who’s struggling to bring up her rowdy kids. With her husband long gone, and not enough money to pay the milkman, she takes up a cleaning job at the Lyons’ posh household to make ends meet.
When Mrs Johnstone finds herself ‘in the club’ yet again with twins, Mrs Lyons (Jacqui Charlesworth) sees a solution to her own problems. Unable to have children, she offers to take one of the twins from Mrs Johnstone after they are born. When Mrs Johnstone consents, Mrs Lyons forces her to swear on the bible she will keep her word.
But things go wrong after the children are born, with Mrs Johnstone loathe to give up either of her beautiful baby boys. But having sworn on the holy book, she is forced to let Mrs Lyons takes one of the twins. From here, Mrs Johnstone’s life goes from bad to worse. She is sacked from her cleaning job and wonders whether she will ever see her son again.
Years pass, until one day Mrs Johnstone’s seven-year-old son Mickey meets Eddie Lyons, a boy his own age from the posh part of town. They strike up an immediate friendship and become ‘blood brothers’. But despite discovering they share the same birthday, neither has an inkling of their real family ties - or the disaster that lies ahead, stemming from their mothers’ secret ‘pact with the devil’.
As Mrs Johnstone, Mickey’s downtrodden but loving mother, Nolan is terrific. Throughout the performance she maintains a perfectly measured Scouse accent, and commands the attention of the audience with an anguished and emotional performance. At times her singing doesn’t quite hit the heights you hope it might, but otherwise it’s almost impossible to find chinks in her performance armour.
Constantly lurking around Nolan’s character is the Narrator, played by John Payton. Serving as a stage conscience for both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, he’s never very far from the action and Payton cuts a dark and sinister figure on stage, demonstrating a powerful voice that constantly taunts and tortures the two mothers.
As brothers Mickey and Eddie, Sean Jones and Daniel Fine are excellent. The pair are frequently immature and hilarious as young boys, but give emotionally charged performances as their characters move into the troubled waters of adult life.
This injection of feeling is crucial in bringing Blood Brothers to its choking finale, which sees Nolan on her knees belting out the Zeitgeist ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ with every last sinew. It’s one of those rare and fantastic moments in theatre where you feel your whole body tingling with emotion. So gripped were the audience that even the sudden appearance of armed police in the aisles couldn’t distract their eyes from the stage.
Opening with the famous twinkling skyline of Liverpool, pieces of scenery and set fly in from all angles, matching the frenetic pace of the play. Indeed, much of Blood Brothers’s success stems from Russell’s skill as a storyteller, and it’s refreshing to see a musical that doesn’t pause to lap up the applause after every musical number.
Instead, the narrative is constantly being driven forwards, blending seamlessly into every song. This is a devastatingly clever piece of scripting, with Russell shackling his audience and forcing them store up their emotion, tears and appreciation.
As the play reaches its climax and Mrs Johnstone finally breaks down, the audience also pours forth its pent-up emotions, providing a phenomenal finale that will live long in the memory of anyone who goes to see this outstanding production.
Copyright J A Waddington 2002. For syndication rights, please email.
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Blood Brothers CD - 1995 London Cast
Blood Brothers CD - 1993 London Cast
Blood Brothers CD - Barbara Dickson
Blood Brothers CD - 1995 International Cast
23rd September to 5th October 2002 Opera House, Manchester
7th October to 19th October 2002 Richmond Theatre, Richmond
4th November to 16th November 2002 Birmingham Hippodrome (and DanceXchange,Patrick Centre), Birmingham
3rd December to 14th December 2002 Mayflower, Southampton