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Blood Brothers (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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It’s the stuff of television soaps and tabloid newspaper series, isn’t it? And also, of course, that of folk and morality tales filtered through time’s many lenses. A poor but fecund woman encounters a wealthy wife desperate to give her husband a child. The pregnancy results in twins. A Faustian bargain is struck.

The inevitability of what follows has the quality of Greek tragedy and, as with those god-driven myths, that we know the ending right from the beginning doesn’t prevent us being caught up in the progress of the drama. Blood Brothers may be social history rooted in a particular time and place, but it is universal in its appeal. As the story of a great tragedy strongly told always has been.

Willy Russell’s musical play has been on one or other of the world’s stages in one version or another since 1984. The current Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright production grips its audience from the first ominous notes as the Liverpool street scene of Andy Walmsley materialises from behind a gauze lit with smoke-streaked crimson. From then on, it’s up to the performers to maintain the tension and its intervals of edgy laughter, those well-observed, cleverly rendered sketches of sub-teenagers at play.

Our guide through all this is the Narrator, part chorus, part Mephistopheles. Craig Price makes a superb tempter, casting his net to trap both Tracy Spender’s Mrs Lyons and the magnificently portrayed Mrs Johnstone of Maureen Nolan. The latter holds the stage for all her scenes and, though we might wish her less feckless, her glass-half-full philosophy – by which “never never” has so many more meanings than the obvious one – tugs at the heartstrings as much as does her voice.

The other two key performances are those of Sean Jones as Mikey and Matthew Colyer as Eddie, the one street-wise but inarticulate, the other naïve and well-meaning but inhibited by education and upbringing. Both impress in their different ways, first as entirely credible young boys, then as young adults following very different career paths.

Kelly-Anne Gower is also good as Linda, the girl who learns maturity’s lessons the hard way. Mikey’s dangerously unstable older brother Sammy is well-sketched by Daniel Taylor. The other seven members of the cast play multiple roles; I particularly liked Graham Martin’s double-act as the public-school master and comprehensive-school teacher.

Russell’s music is both an integral part of the action and a commentary on it, notably for the Narrator’s rhyming couplets. Kevin Towse and Andy Ralls lead the band, though I would have liked a more subtle sound balance in the amplification, especially in the first half. It’s rare for a touring production to appear so fresh and new-minted as does this one.


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