Willy Russell is something of a ladies’ man – or should I say, a leading ladies’ man. First he gave us Rita / Susan, in Educating Rita, played so brilliantly – in the film version - by Julie Walters. Later came Shirley Valentine, a superb role that will always be so closely associated with Pauline Collins and, sandwiched in between, he created a third Liverpudlian leading lady, Mrs Johnstone, in his 1983 musical – Blood Brothers.
Although it’s initial West End run only lasted six months, the Olivier Awards for Best New Musical, and for Barbara Dickson’s performance as Mrs Johnstone, hinted at its future potential. Reopening, after a year long national tour, in 1988, the show is now the third longest running musical in London and, despite this longevity, it has never been re-written – giving us a show that greets its returning audience like a well known and well loved friend.
The terrace of slums along either side of the, incredibly highly raked, stage stand defiantly beside the two empty stretchers that are an indication of the tragic tale that is about to unfold. The overture begins and immediately it is apparent that credit for the atmosphere must go to the sound design of Ben Harrison and the amazingly dramatic lighting of Mark Howett.
In the dim light, as the police cover the bodies that now populate the stretchers, the newest member of the touring cast stands, menacingly, waiting to ask, “Did you ever hear of the Johnstone twins?” With a flawless Liverpudlian accent, an almost predatory persona, and an incredible voice, Marti Pellow, is quite simply perfect as the narrator, appearing and disappearing in the shadows around the set.
Playing characters that age from single figures to mid-twenty’s in just a couple of hours is never easy but, Sean Jones and Matthew Collyer as the twins Mickey and Eddie manage the transition very well indeed. Their transformations are totally believable, but it is Kelly-Anne Gower, as the love interest, Linda, who steals the award as she morphs from little girl, to teenage temptress, to frustrated wife and mother to… well, most of us know how she ends up.
Jones’s real-life wife, Tracy Spencer, gives a first-rate performance as Mrs Lyons, portraying her fear and paranoia with conviction. She is supported well by Tim Churchill as her long suffering, and work obsessed, husband. The rest of the cast are brilliant at covering the multitude of bit-parts and minor characters with Daniel Taylor, suitable vile as Mickey’s older-brother Sammy.
Although she is vocally not the strongest performer on the stage, Maureen Nolan is every inch the Scouse mother. She gives everything she has to the part and rides the emotional rollercoaster right the way through to the tear-jerkingly painful end. In possibly the most dramatic five minutes ever to have been written for a musical, her performance of “Tell Me It’s Not True”, brings the capacity house to tears and, in recognition of such a magnificent performance, straight to its feet.
This amazing show is a theatrical masterpiece - don’t miss it!