Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

trio blood

The tragic trio, Leighton Coulson as Mickey, Amarpreet Manwaha as Linda and Lily Philpotts as Eddie. Pictures: Alastair Barnsley

Blood Brothers

Highbury Theatre Centre


Blood Brothers is a favourite musical for many people and if you are one of them, or let’s be honest, even if you’re not, then this is one not to be missed. It is a quite wonderful production.

Not only that but it is a rare chance to see the original 1981 version of Willy Russell’s tale of twins separated at birth, a tale which started life as a play, and a school play at that, before it graduated into an international, award-winning musical.

For those who know the musical, this is a sort of Blood Brothers lite, by the time it opened at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983, it had grown a full musical score, a large cast and had been working out, putting a fair amount of muscle on the bones.

Which is not to diminish this superb production with its six strong cast. What you have is a play, which stands confidently on its own two feet but it has the added interest of comparison with its own grown up self.

We open with the familiar tableau, the tragic ending coming before we have even begun, slowly unfolded, layer by layer, to take us back to where you hear the story of the Johnstone twins, as like each other as two new pins.

That particular claim was challenged at first by the fact that Eddie was played by a girl, but the girl in question, Lily Philpotts, soon made you forget that. She was Eddie from head to toe, the baby who had a silver spoon thrust in its mouth by a fate that was both kind and cruel in equal measure. She gave us a performance of the highest order as the posh, privileged twin and she was matched by Leighton Coulson as Mickey who was simply superb. He is funny, sad, daft, surly, angry, a child, then a teenager then adult with the cares of the world weighing heavy on his struggling, low paid, unskilled shoulders. The pair are a real find for Highbury.


Mickey and Eddie accidentally become friends without knowing the truth

In the musical the Narrator is a slightly sinister figure, a one man Greek chorus in the background, filling in the narrative, here the Narrator is not only your guide but the director and MC, positioning the protagonists and giving them their cues in a confident performance in the experienced hands of Eléna Serafinas. In the play the Narrator commands the stage moving the characters like pieces in a dark game of chess to its inevitable, tragic end and Serafinas plays the game like a grand master. She also doubles up as the milkman and moonlights as a consultant gynaecologist.

Sharon Clayton is another old hand from the Highbury company, with a wonderful performance as Mrs Lyons, the woman in the big house who can’t have children so buys one of Mrs Johnstone’s twins. We see her descend from confident, scheming, wealthy wife, lauding it over her lower class, pregnant cleaner to a paranoid mother frightened of the sight and even thought of Mickey, of his mother, of what we know as fate.

Katie Ho is a believable Mrs Johnstone, a woman said to have a stone in place of her heart, and we are asked to judge her for ourselves, and when we do she is innocent of that charge. She is a victim of circumstance, of poverty, of what the musical will go on to tell us is class and Ho embraces the part beautifully. To give away a child is a terrible decision for any mother to make but it was done with the best of hopeless intentions and Ho gives us a very human Mrs Johnstone - she also has a fine voice in the snatches of songs that remain in the play.

Separation of Eddie and Mickey might be the seed of the tragedy, but the catalyst was Linda, in another fine performance, this time from Amarpreet Manwaha, another find for Highbury. Linda is first the young girl, then an amorous teenager – her attempt to seduce Mickey into at least a kiss while sitting on the steps to the stage as 14-year-olds is a delight – then finally we see her as a dowdy wife, old and tired before her time.


Eléna Serafinas as the Narrator surveys to scene as a superstitious prophecy comes true

Both Mickey and Eddie loved her, but she ended up with Mickey, the fun one, but the fun had gone along with his job, his future and his ambition. In desperation she turned to Eddie for help, help that grew into resentment when Mickey found out, and that resentment sucked in everything in Mickey’s life, good and bad, to create a need for revenge. The die had been cast and the devil finally had their number.

The tragic finale has a different scenario than the subsequent musical, but in a way it is even more tragic, but the result is still the same for the twins, alike as two new pins, born the self, same day.

It still has that raw emotion as we see the changes in Mickey as the world of his carefree youth deserts him and he descends into despair, of Eddie trying to be a friend, a blood brother, but the gulf between the twins widening with each blow to Mickey’s pride and hopes. Then we have Linda who had waited so long for Mickey yet the happiness when he finally plucked up the courage to ask her out was so short lived as circumstance killed off all their plans and dreams.

Director Laura McLaurie has done a fine job in keeping the play on track with some lovely touches such as the babies vanishing and becoming children as shawls are unfurled, or the twins being part of the action at the start, nameless characters holding the baby representations of themselves.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set is a gem of simplicity. A table and chairs on a well decorated platform stage left and the same on a scruffy, worn platform stage right to represent the two homes. A walkway between them and then front of stage for factory, park, offices, whatever,

Russell always wanted the staging to be simple, with few props, with scenes relying on lighting, and this production manages that with lighting from Andrew Birkbeck picking out characters and moments to add drama.

The result is not just fine amateur theatre, but fine theatre and one of the best things on the Highbury stage for some time. The brothers will be bonding to 06-05-23.

Roger Clarke



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