Tears and cheers for an old friend

Cowboys, indians, benefits and skipping songs in the playgrounds of the poor, the slum streets of Liverpool

Blood Brothers

Wolverhampton Grand

****

WHEN two of the stars and half the audience are in tears at the end of the show it has either been an unmitigated disaster or a triumph and a deserved standing ovation gave you the answer.

Originally a school play Willie Russell's musical has been engaging audiences for 30 years and comes around regularly which is a tribute to not only its stamina but also its popularity.

True, a few lines look a bit dated these days. You would be pushed to get someone to act as a lookout for a robbery on the life-changing  promise of £50 – which was earmarked to pay for a slap up dinner for two, a night dancing and new clothes!

But the basic story holds firm. For those who have never seen it, a Liverpool mum deserted by her husband has seven kids, bailiffs at the door, social services talking about children going into care and twins on the way.

The woman who employs her as a cleaner is desperate for a child so with persuasion a deal is struck and one twin grows up in luxury to become a councillor, the other ends up in jail. To add to the mix the brothers fall for the same girl, which leads to the tragic climax. 

The tale is told by a slightly sinister narrator who seems to have had a humour by-pass. On opening night Warwick Evans was indisposed so that meant a reshuffle with Tim Churchill taking his part, Graeme Kinniburgh taking Churchill's part of Mr Lyons and Samuel Hargreaves in turn taking his part as the bus conductor.

Mickey (Sean Jones) makes the mistake that will change and ultimately take his life

Micky (Sean Jones) makes the life that will change and ultimately cost him his life .by following psychotic older brother Sammy (Daniel Taylor)

And  Churchill did a splendid job in the role of the stern, humourless cross between conscience and inquisitor while the rest fitted in as if they had always been there.

The creal honours though go to Maureen Nolan as the believable and very human Mrs Johnstone, the mum with the production line womb and the twin she kept, Micky played yet again by Sean Jones. 

Jones has made the role virtually his own growing from the seven year old – who is nearly eight – to the broken man in his mid-twenties ravaged by despair, prison and addiction to anti-depressants. We see all the fun, happiness, dreams, hopes and any ambition drained away from him as life at the bottom of the pile takes its toll.

Both he and Nolan were in tears at the end, and it was easy to see why after two highly charged, emotional performances.

After seeing the show in its various configurations many times it is easy to get a little blasé and it takes special performances like these to make you remember what a good show this is. It has humour a plenty, pathos, injustice, emotion and drama and some fine songs and never flags from the sombre opening, really how it all ends, through the story of how we got there, the story of the Johnstone twins.

Tracy Spencer is a convincing Mrs Lyons, the somewhat flaky rich recipient of the secret twin Eddie, played by Mark Hutchinson, who produces some lovely touches as the rather naïve and sheltered posh boy on the scruffy streets of Liverpool.

He and Mickey, their real relationship unknown, become unlikely best friends sealed in blood when they find they share a birthday – not knowing that was not all they shared.

Mickey's older brother Sammy, played by Daniel Taylor, who has a plate in his head – and not much else – after a childhood accident

Around that is woven tensions, fears of the mothers at the secret being exposed, class divisions . . . and Mrs Lyons playing on Mrs Johnstone's blind belief in superstition to ensure she would keep Edward and the secret would always be safe – the key to the plot.

Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone with Mickey, the son she saved . . . or condemned, the delemma of Blood Brothers

Olivia Sloyan is another who grows from child in the space of three hours or so as Linda who waits  patiently for Mickey to finally ask her out and then loses him almost immediately to an ill fated job with the now small-time gangster Sammy.

Perhaps an advantage of seeing a show so many times is you start to notice ither things such as how beautifully this show directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright has been lit by Mark Howett with a set from Andy Walmsley that allows seamless scene changes. The dramtic climax, incidentally, was the best I have seen. Timing and sound spot on.

Sound on opening night, always a challenge for touring productions, especially when an actor missing means a reshuffle, was a little fuzzy at times on  multi-part and chorus high-tempo numbers but most of the time every word was clear which is also a tribute to a fine cast.

A mention to for musical director Kelvin Towse and his seven piece orchestra who managed to sound much fuller and bigger for well known numbers such as Marilyn Monroe and, perhaps the most recognisable of the show, Tell Me It's Not True.

If you haven't seen the show, perhaps you should and if you have, Blood Brothers is like an old friend on a regular visit and well worth seeing again. To 04-05-13

Roger Clarke

And from the other side of the tracks

THE gripping story of the Johnstone twins is back with its bumper bundle of humour, menace and tragedy that ends in tears . . .on stage and in the packed audience.

Willy Russell's classic keeps coming back and the customers keep rolling in for a show that has been nicknamed 'The Standing Ovation Musical'.

Sure enough the first night audience at the Grand were on their feet after the heart-stopping shoot-out finale, applauding and cheering a fine cast.

And Maureen Nolan, superb as the ever-pregnant Mrs Johnstone, could be seen mopping away the tears as she left the stage, drained by the emotion of it all.

Bill Kenwright's production recently exceeded 10,000 performances in the West End - one of only three musicals to achieve that milestone - and it has become one of those unmissable events.

Sean Jones must have clocked up a remarkable number of appearances as Mickey, the twin who is kept at home with his poor family while his brother is allowed to go to a wealthy childless couple. He is terrific, first as a scruffy seven-year-old and later as the tragic adult who ends up in prison then reliant on drugs.

By accident he meets up with his twin and, despite the class divide, they become 'blood brothers', only for it all to end in tragedy when they fall for the same girl, Linda (Olivia Sloyan).

Mark Hutchinson impresses as the other twin, Eddie, and on opening night Tim Churchill stepped in confidently for Warwick Evans as the Narrator, and there are strong performances from Tracy Spencer (Mrs Lyons) and Graham Martin who delivers a remarkable instant transformation from a posh school master to a harrassed teacher in a tough council school. There's even a randy bewigged Judge in the show! To  04.05.13 

Paul Marston

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