mrs Johnstone

Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone

Blood Brothers

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WILLY Russells’ simple but endearing musical of twins separated at birth shows little sign of slowing down.

It may have closed after some 30 years in the West End, but it continues to tour to packed houses and consistent acclaim. A testament indeed to the sheer quality of its exquisite storytelling.

Without wishing to over analyse, it shouldn’t work. The plot line of a mother giving up one of her own children, no matter how poor she is, is in danger of sounding a little far-fetched.

Somehow, though, its accepted - even acceptable. What captivates and matters to the audience is what happens next. We are drawn in by the separate and ultimately reunited lives of two people on very different sides of the tracks.

Crucially, it’s all hugely relatable. These are not some over drawn characters from a formulaic Broadway musical. We are watching real people going through experiences we may not have gone through, but can certainly understand.

The struggles of making ends meet, of living on the ‘never never’, are just as prevalent now as they were when it was written. No need, then, for any updates as nothing much has really changed.

Russell is clearly writing about what he knows, and it works in extraordinary fashion. Here is a writer passionate about Liverpool, his home city and no one is more qualified to reflect the humour that pours out of the place. Whilst the play transfers and works in any city split by cultural and economic divisions, it sits best on the streets of its spiritual home.

As simple as the story arc may be, the impact is immeborthersnse. Themes such as class division, family values, friendship and love are central to a sweet story that tugs at heartstrings and, at times, leaves you breathless.

Yes, it’s officially a ‘musical’ but it’s actually more of a play with songs. Whilst those songs are crucial, the dialogue has equal power. Unlike some shows, the songs are not ‘ set up’ as an excuse to belt out a number, here they are seamlessly woven into the plot and serve to only embellish it. It’s a balance that never lets the energy drop and keeps the audience riveted from start to finish.

Mickey and Eddie - the blood brothers

It has been labelled as ‘over sentimental’ in the past. It’s not. Its emotional. Its passionate and its real. Sentiment plays a part but always in context and never for effect.

At times, the comedy is laugh out loud – particularly in the first act as the actors revel in playing young kids. Childish mannerisms, quirks and speech delivery are captured beautifully in an innocent, playful world of dead worms, cowboys and Indians, snot and being cheeky to policemen. These are ‘real‘ kids, wanting to create mischief, test the waters and explore the world. They are innocent rascals and recognisable to us all.

Whilst the humour never completely goes away, the mood significantly darkens as the show progresses. Life, as it tends to, gets tougher and cracks appear as pressure grows. Friendships are tested and childhood plans and dreams are thwarted. It’s no plot spoiler to say that all does not end well. We know that from the very start of the play as two men lie slain onstage. Something, somewhere has gone badly wrong.

Sean Jones, no stranger to the role, is simply stunning as ‘Mickey’. He reminds me a little of Con O’Neil, an actor who made a huge impact when the show played in London. Jones shifts effortlessly through a huge set of demands for an actor. A cheeky seven year old (wishing he was eight ), a hormone driven teenager, an over worked under paid employee and, ultimately, a battered, pill dependant wretched soul clutching to life and empty of his former dreams and schemes. It’s an acting masterclass that grabs attention from the get go.

Lyn Paul delivers a strong and proud Mrs. Johnstone, a single parent with an awful decision to make. Paul follows in the tradition of casting well known singers in the role (Kiki Dee, Carole King, Barbara Dixon and Mel C are just a few who have ‘donned the apron’) She resists any temptation to ‘play’ with the melodies and keeps a real stillness in scenes, giving her all the more strength.

Dean Chisnall stalks and prowls the stage as the ever present, menacing ‘Narrator’. It’s a pivotal role, not only serving to link scenes and move time forward, but to deliver some quite beautiful monologues. Chisnall belts out a song too. His ‘ Shoes Upon The Table’ was genuinely exciting and full of power. Hairs on the back of necks must surely have been felt.

Sarah Jane Buckley, as the well heeled but somewhat neurotic Mrs. Lyons, is a delight. Strong acting and a beautiful singing voice combine perfectly and her ability to act through song is a joy to watch.

Joel Benedict as Eddie, the ‘ friggin’ poshie’ twin, combines excellently with Sean Jones. As different as their upbringing has made them, the connection between them is always apparent.

Strong performances too from Danielle Corglass as ‘Linda’, Adam Search as snot obsessed ‘Sammy’, Tim Churchill as ‘Mr Lyons ‘ and Graham Martin as ‘Policeman/Teacher’.

Mention too for a superbly tight orchestration under the direction of Phil Costelow and a hugely effective and evocative set design by Andy Walmsley.

Even Everton FC gets a mention – perhaps not surprisingly given the show’s producer is also their chairman.

Bill Kenwright is rightly proud and protective of this extraordinary piece of theatre and deserves huge credit for keeping it as fresh and alive today as it was in the early days. He co-directs this production with original director, Bob Tomson. Under that kind of guidance, its unlikely to go wrong.

If you see only one show this year, make it this. Blistering, heart-breaking theatre that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Grab a ticket while you can. To 22-10-16

Tom Roberts

11-10-16 

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