Still telling after all of these years

blood brothers

Blood Brothers

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WILLY Russell’s tragic tale is simply a theatrical phenomenon; it is one of the great musicals and unravelling the secrets of its success must have been the Holy Grail for producers for a generation.

It has no flashy special effects, or indeed any special effects at all, it has no glamour, no glorious costumes, no big, or even small, dance numbers, no white hatted hero or tragic heroine and certainly no happy ending.

But what it does have is a strong and believable story, characters you care about and a quiet humanity. It is funny – laugh out loud at times – it has infectious songs, with Tell Me It’s Not True guaranteed to drift around the back roads of your mind for days afterwards and is all cloaked in a universal sadness as we are all drawn to the dramatic finale.

But perhaps the saddest thing of all is that 32 years since the brothers first appeared as a school play in Liverpool, the musical is still relevant, still contemporary, still striking a social chord; a generation on and food banks are growing, the gap between rich and poor is widening and employment and wages are even less certain.

There have been some changes over the years, mainly technical with the huge advances in both stage lighting and sound, which means Nick Richings lighting has become more sophisticated with the opening sequence and overture a scene in its own right; the lighting creates instant mood changes throughout the show.

And there are more subtle changes starting with Kristofer Harding as The Narrator. This is a key part, a sort of conscience to the characters and a conduit for the audience.

Past Narrators have tended to be sinister, frightening angel of death figures always lurking in the shadows; Harding is less menace and more matter of fact, warning and reminding the two mothers of the tale that there will be a price to be paid for their actions. And it works.

As for the mothers, Maureen Nolan returns to the role of deserted mum Mrs Johnstone with her cheery disposition and seven kids. She always brings the role to life and has a great voice for songs such as the show’s signature tune, Tell Me It’s Not True and the very clever songs Easy Terms and Marilyn maureen and seanMonroe.

Both start life as innocuous, touching ballads but as the story moves on take on a life of their own full of anger, bitterness and frustration.

At the other end of the social scale, and as it turns out, the mental scale, we have Mrs Lyons, played by Kate Jarman, who employs Mrs Johnstone, pregnant with twins, as a cleaner. She lives in a big house and has everything she desires . . . except a child and there in a few words is the plot.

Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone and Sean Jones as a seven year old, nearly eight, Mickey

Mrs Lyons is a character we don’t like from the start and her descent into madness, well portrayed by Jarman, finds little empathy, unlike the lowliest of the blood brothers, Mickey, played once again by Sean Jones who has made the part his own.

It is a demanding part both physically and mentally as he first charges about the stage as a seven year old (almost eight) on an imaginary horse, becomes a surly teenager and reluctant (very) lover then enters the world of grownups with a wife, child and a mind numbing job, until he is laid off – downsizing is the current euphemism – and ends up in jail after being led into trouble by older brother Sammy.

Sammy, played by Daniel Taylor, is a bit of a psychopath with a metal plate in his head, who has always been in trouble with the law but it is Mickey who ends up paying for his crimes.

He leaves jail a broken man addicted to anti-depressants, putting fatal pressure on his relationship with wife and childhood sweetheart Linda, played beautifully by Danielle Corlass, another we see grow from tot, through teens to adulthood.

Meanwhile sailing through a problem free life we have Eddie Lyons, played by Joel Benedict, who, not surprisingly, shares a birthday with Mickey and has become his blood brother.

Despite being from different sides of the tracks the pair – and Linda – are inseparable from childhood, with Mickey adding a harder edge, and broader, more earthy vocabulary, to his secret twin.

We follow the trio through adolescence to the verge of adulthood with dreams of a bright future until a old reality kicks in and Mickey, unemployed, with no home, a pregnant wife and broke at Christmas is offered cash by Eddie, now a rich student, and full of resentment and fury at his own helplessness, he snaps, turning on his one-time best friend. The dice have been thrown.

Jealousy, friendship, betrayal, deceit, treachery, scheming, love and hate, all the human emotions combine, add drugs and all the elements are there for a perfect storm of passions in the tragic ending to the tale of the Johnstone twins.

There is good support from the likes of Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons and Graham Martin as both the policeman and a pair of teachers, the head of a posh boarding school in gown and mortar board and a ruffle of the hair later as the tired, disillusioned battler against the odds in a Liverpool comp.

Producer Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson have done little tinkering with the musical since Kenwright revived it in the West End in 1988. And why should they. Each time Behind the Arras has reviewed Blood Brothers the theatre has been full and it has ended with standing ovations and tears on both sides of the proscenium. So what is there to change? If it ain’t broke . . .  

Blood Brothers is a magnificent musical, one where there is no need for anything but the story and its telling. If you have not seen it then you should as an essential part of any theatrical education. It is still as fresh and vibrant as ever and is still a good story well told, which is what theatre is all about - and I defy anyone not to be moved by the ending. To 25-10-14.

Roger Clarke

13-10-14

Overheard from a woman on the train home: “It was very good  . . . and it’s good to pay to be miserable.” 

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