Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers is often considered in the public conscience as ‘the weepie musical with that song’. Since its 1983 premiere, a parade of leading ladies, from Barbara Dickson to Niki Evans via Kiki Dee and the Nolan sisters, have tackled the role of Mrs Johnstone, the Liverpool mum living on the ‘never never’ who’s forced to give up one of her twin sons for adoption to her wealthy employer, Mrs Lyons.

Now it’s Melanie C pushing the pram, and doing it in some style. Always the best (some would say only) singer in the Spice Girls, she’s grown from being the ‘sporty’ girl in the tracksuit shouting “zigga zig ah” to being one of this year’s most proficient West End newcomers.

Her performance is notable for its un-starry sense of empathy and humility, capturing all of Mrs Johnstone’s hopeless naivety and tragic heroism. Particularly in an age of recession and rising unemployment, Blood Brothers‘ themes of social injustice and systematic failures in dealing with the psychological fall-out, seem as pertinent as ever.

The problem for me is that, despite a talented cast (Stephen Palfreman and Richard Reynard make an excellent Mickey and Eddie), there are staging elements which are now so dated they hamper engagement. The excess reverb effects, tinny synthesisers and garish backdrops leave a lasting impression that after 21 years the show is badly showing its age, even if its new star certainly isn’t.

– Theo Bosanquet

Note: The following FOUR STAR review dates from January 1998. Cast members have since changed. Customarily described as the tragedy of twins separated at birth, Blood Brothers is equally the tragedy of two mothers – Mrs Johnstone, a working class mum with more kids than she can afford and Mrs Lyons, her middle class employer. Without a child of her own but desperate to have one, Mrs Lyons persuades Mrs Johnstone to secretly part with one of her twin sons. The drama which ensues chronicles the lives of the twins as they grow up and documents the reactions of the mothers as they witness the consequences of their secret pact. Lest we should miss the moral of the story, a Narrator is used to give voice to the women s consciences and hasten the plot towards its tragic ending.

In the current West End production the parts of Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons are played by Lyn Paul and Sarah Hay.

Lyn Paul once sang with the New Seekers. Twenty-five years on, in Blood Brothers, she displays a vocal maturity and dramatic talent which make you wonder why she delayed her appearance in stage musicals until now. She puts heart and soul into the role of Mrs Johnstone, creating a character who is (almost literally) brim full of life – vivacious in her youth, tender and indulgent with her children (you really can believe a child would call round to chat to her), resilient in the face of adversity yet uncertain she is doing the right thing.

As Mrs Lyons, Hay convincingly develops the emotional complexities of her character. Using blackmail and duplicity to manipulate both her husband and Mrs Johnstone, she becomes increasingly insecure as she realises her failure to control her adopted son in the same way. By highlighting Mrs Lyons emotional vulnerability and mental fragility, Hay wins sympathy from the audience and portrays Mrs Lyons decline into madness without lapsing into melodrama.

My only quibble with Blood Brothers might be to question the role of the Narrator. Useful in adding tension and menace to the plot and in moving the action forward, he can also become wearing. ‘Not you again!’ you think as he reminds you (again) of the price that ‘must be paid.’

That said, when the price is paid in the final scene, there are few dry eyes in the house. Small wonder that the standing ovation has now become a nightly tradition at the Phoenix. I heartily recommend this production of Blood Brothers … or do I mean Blood Mothers?

Note: The following FOUR STAR review dates from October 1997. Cast members have since changed.

Willy Russell‘s Blood Brothers is not your stereotypical musical, whatever your stereotype might be. It’s more like two musicals in one – fun, frothy and carefree in the first act with dramatic pulls at the heart-strings in the second.

The play brings to stage the age-old nature vs nurture debate with the tale of two Liverpudlian twins separated at birth. One remains with his poor but loving, working class mother Mrs Johnstone (Helen Reddy) while the other grows up with her former employer, the rich but paranoid Mrs Lyons (Sarah Hay). The mothers try to keep them apart but destiny brings the boys, who become best friends, together again and again, with ultimately tragic consequences.

Stephen Palfreman is very likable as poor twin Mickey. As a child, he bounds around the stage with endearing ease. The memory of this carefree innocence makes him achingly pitiable when he falls victim to harsh circumstances as an adult. Mark Hutchinson doesn’t manage to evoke the same degree of sympathy for rich twin Eddie but then he doesn’t suffer as much. He plays the kid who gets all the breaks effectively enough. A strong ensemble cast, who juggle bit parts as siblings, neighbours and other walk-ons, help to speed the action and hi-jinx along. But the real drama is flamed by the women in the boys lives.

It is surprising, but welcome, in a play about twin brothers to discover such strong female characters in Mrs Johnstone (Helen Reddy) and Linda (Jan Graveson). This is not a given of the script – I have seen other actresses make mincemeat of these crucial supporting roles. But Reddy and Graveson charge their performances with such emotion that both appeared tear-stained and weak-kneed at the curtain call. Reddy, who is Australian and has lived much of her life in America, deserves special mention for mastering the Liverpudlian accent.

At points, the play does teeter into melodrama, but this is the fault largely of the Narrator who lopes around the stage singing songs about the devil and explaining obvious plot developments. Keith Burns does the best he can with the role, but it really is an unnecessary device which only distances the audience from the action and overeggs the emotion.

Still, even the Narrator can’ t detract from the highly emotional climax. You know it’s coming from the very opening scene, but it doesn’t make the twins bloody end any less heartbreaking, especially when they’ve left such incredible, bereft women behind.

Terri Paddock, October 1997