Perhaps not one of the most memorable musicals of our time – certainly Liverpudlian dramatist Willy Russell is not particularly celebrated for his musical accomplishments - the show, however, has a glamorous pop pedigree from Barbara Dickinson, the original Mrs Johnstone, to current songstress Linda Nolan, who has starred since 2000.
And while the central themes of parallel lives, fatalism, fraternity and the ever encroaching social divide may seem familiar, it’s the way in which he moulds his characters into likeable, believable men and women that makes them worthy of our attention.
It’s difficult to imagine how the show’s seasoned matriarch (Nolan) could imbue her Mrs Johnstone with a sense of something new, and admittedly at times her character seems a little too over-complacent. However, by the second half she becomes less detached and dismissive and more engaged with the son she surrendered for adoption.
Joanne Zorian’s elegantly heeled yet controlling Mrs Lyons provides a stark contrast to the superstitious Mrs Johnstone’s ‘salt of the earth’ wit, her obsession gradually building to acute paranoia over her son’s well-being.
Stephen Palfreman’s mesmerising, hyper Mickey effortlessly makes the transition from cheeky Scouser to saturnine and insular husband, while (Craig Whiteley’s Eddie is reserved and eloquent, yet with a deep avidity to explore how the other half lives.
Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright’s fast-paced production takes its time examining the social discourse of children, then moving swiftly through the ‘terrible teens’ years to the responsibilities of adulthood with a keen eye for comedy and pathos. Meanwhile the musical repertoire is pared back to a few reprised numbers, the most memorable of which is Mrs Johnstone’s catchy and nostalgic “Marilyn Monroe”.
The interplay permits a fascinating exploration of parallel lives. Mickey and Eddie are congeneric in their gaucherie and funny peculiarities, even mirroring each other’s relocation to the country and sharing the same love interest. There are parallels too with the screen siren Marilyn Monroe as the twins, and indeed all the characters, allude to her ‘live fast, die young’ legacy.
Louise Clayton’s effervescent Linda is the catalyst for tragedy and when the circle of fate is complete, the damning words of Keith Burns’ ghostly narrator become a ghastly reality. The birth mother sings lamentably “Tell Me It’s Not True”, even now preferring to believe that it must be “from an old movie of Marilyn Monroe”; while the surrogate fades into the background almost as if finally conceding that blood brothers can never be truly parted. The final unison of two hands firmly entwined symbolises everlasting sodality.
- Emma Edgeley, reviewed at The Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from July 2001 and an earlier tour of this production. For current cast information, please check performance listings.
One of the joys of reviewing regional theatre is to have an opportunity of re-evaluating shows one saw many moons before. And so it is with Blood Brothers, a musical drama which, after a short first run in the mid-1980s was revived shortly afterwards and is now a West End institution.
The current tour is a replica of the long-running London show and is co-directed by Bob Tomson (the original director) and producer Bill Kenwright. At its birth, Blood Brothers was seen as writer-composer Willie Russell's angry polemic against Thatcherism with its constant references to the class divide. In its current incarnation, during a period in which we are all supposedly middle class and part of a community more at ease with itself (in current political parlance), the musical is equally effective in pointing up the age old-conflict between nature and nurture.
The tragic story, with its dark humour and classical poetic and dramatic structure, concerns the eponymous Johnstone Twins, separated at birth by a mother who can barely survive financially. She's persuaded to give one of the babies to her well-off but barren employer under a pledge that she will never reveal the secret transaction. In their childhood, the boys, brought up in completely different environments, meet coincidentally and become best friends and "blood brothers". Their lives travel different routes but end (20 years on) in mutual self-destruction and death. They die as they were born - together.
There are overtones of Greek tragedy which, in the hands of another playwright, could well make for an evening of gloom and doom. Russell, however, with his cheeky scouse humour, provides laugh-out-loud comedy as well as heart-stopping pathos. The novelty of casting adult actors as the children is a gem and, in this revival, is played for all it's worth. In particular, Paul Crosbie as Mickey (the "rough" twin) provides a performance of stunning versatility - first as the impudent, yet innocent, child and latterly as a drug addicted ex-con whose life has nowhere to go. Phillip Stewart as the Narrator (representing the guilty conscience of the two mothers) is also standout and commands the stage with his verse-commentary and powerful singing voice.
The surprise of the evening for me was the performance of Denise Nolan as Mrs Johnstone (a role currently being played in the west End by her sister Linda). Former pop singers who turn to the stage can usually be relied upon to put over their numbers comfortably, but scarcely reach any dramatic heights with their acting. Not so Miss Nolan.
I've rarely seen such a painfully gut-wrenching performance from any actress. The consistency and development of her characterisation as the guilt-ridden mother is superb, culminating in a rendition of "Tell Me It's Not True" which is by far the best version I've heard from any of the talented actresses who've portrayed the role - including the wonderful Barbara Dickson who originated it. But then again, this production is well cast throughout and staged with economy and commitment.
The directors should be proud to have produced a touring version of this show which, if anything, is better than the original. I can't wait to see it again.
Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at the Brighton's Theatre Royal)