“Did you ever here the story of the Johnstone twins?” This deceptively casual question, together with two lines of the heart wrenching “Tell Me It’s Not True” sung by a grieving mother over the dead bodies of her two beloved boys, provides the curtain raiser to Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, a simple, but epic story of twins, torn apart at birth, and brought up at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but who’s destinies are irrevocably linked. The audience is left in no doubt of the emotional rollercoaster on which they are about to embark.
Russell’s razor-sharp and achingly well observed verse (as in the “Just Fifteen” summer sequence, and the “Girl Inside the Woman” introduction to “Light Romance”) is made all the more poignant as the audience already knows how the story of the boy’s lives, pre-determined by their status in society, is to end, helplessly watching the sequence of events that inevitable leads to that tragic conclusion.
After 28 years on the road and packing them in at London’s Phoenix Theatre, Russell’s story still has the power to shock, and to shine a torch on the injustices of the class system and the consequences of the lack of opportunity - messages which are sadly just as relevant today. The initial production in 1983, starred Barbara Dickson in the pivotal role of Mrs Johnstone, and had only limited success at the time (due in part to the fact the country was enduring the worst recession in living memory at the time). It was not until Bill Kenwright took the helm, re-worked and re-launched it in 1986, that it became the enduring classic that we see today.
The show has played in the south west more times than I care to remember, and there can be few people experiencing the show now for the first time. Despite this, it still manages to fill the Pavilion Theatre, which is no mean feat in the current economic climate, and speaks volumes about the quality of the piece, and its ability to capture the imagination of its audience.
Familiarity certainly does not breed contempt here, and the show is as fresh and as relevant as ever it was. It is impossible thought not to compare individual performances, and Maureen Nolan, the latest in a long line of Mrs Johnstones, has some tough acts to follow (including Kiki Dee, Lyn Paul, Stephanie Lawrence, Petula Clark and several of her own siblings, the Nolan Sisters. She manages to hold her own, and wrings every ounce of emotion out of the unbearably sad , “Tell Me It’s Not True”. Matthew Collyer (Eddie) and Kelly-Anne Gower (Linda) are excellent, and having previously played Mickey in the west end and on tour, Sean Jones makes this most demanding role his own.
Still able to achieve a standing ovation night after night, Blood Brothers shows no signs of running out of steam, and is fast becoming the ‘Mousetrap’ of the touring circuit. Even if you have seen it many times before, this story just keeps on giving, so go see it again and keep this ball rolling for years to come!