Blood Brothers continues at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne until 23 January and then tours until 16 April 2016, with further dates to be confirmed.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Willy Russell’s musical is a theatrical phenomenon.
Starting life as a touring school play, Blood Brothers developed and debuted in Liverpool before Russell transferred it to the West End in 1983. Although the musical won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical it was not a commercial success and ran for only six months.
A year-long national tour followed during which Russell resisted pressure to bring it back to London. Eventually he agreed to a West End revival in 1988, firstly at the Albery Theatre, where it ran for three years, then transferring to the Phoenix Theatre in 1991. The revival ran for more than 24 years in the West End, and played over 10,000 performances.
Subsequently it has been performed all around the world and has enjoyed many touring productions in the UK. This latest one, directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, proves that its potency has not diminished. It still has the power to move an audience to both laughter and tears with its strong storyline of twins, Mickey and Eddie, separated at birth but destined to have their lives intertwined. Even to the extent of them both loving the same girl, Linda.
The separation comes about when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, who is already raising seven children on her own, is persuaded to part with one to her employer, Mrs Lyons, who is unable to have children of her own. The swap is carried out in secrecy and the boys never know the truth until the end of the story.
Their tale has all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy with the added presence of a narrator serving as both a Greek Chorus, telling the story and commenting on events, and the lurking harbinger of a doomed outcome. Kristofer Harding’s portrayal is but one of the many fine performances that the production yields.
The laughter comes mainly in Act I when grown actors play the roles of young children. Their hilarious antics and games are sure to evoke childhood memories for many in the audience.
Act II is much darker as Mickey’s life spirals downward while Eddie’s prospers. It races on towards its inevitable tragic conclusion.
Russell wrote not only the book and lyrics, but also the music. Songs such as ‘Shoes Upon the Table’ and ‘Easy Terms’ serve as motifs throughout the show, as does the shadow of Marilyn Monroe, reflecting aspects of Mrs Johnstone’s life. This production has an excellent extended overture which allows for a mimed prologue.
It was just a pity that during this performance Russell’s lyrics were occasionally lost when the music dominated.
The normally basic set is enhanced by designer Andy Walmsley, to allow for some flown-in scenery, and Nick Richings’ lighting provides the necessary atmospheric tension. There is also a very effective backdrop that reveals a panorama of Liverpool at night, complete with twinkling lights.
A fine cast, both principals and ensemble, work hard and deliver well.
Sean Jones’ young Mickey is a delight – an uncouth loveable scamp who introduces the staid and innocent Eddie into a totally alien world – while Joel Benedict delivers Eddie’s formal manners and upper-class diction with full comic effect. Each plays off the other splendidly.
There is a lovely performance from Danielle Corlass as Linda. The transition from scatty child to mature woman is skilfully achieved. The adolescent courtship between her and Mickey manages to be both funny and tender.
Paula Tappenden brings out well the paranoia of Mrs Lyons which causes her to descend from a strong controlling woman to a haunted wreck that brings about the tragic ending.
But the centrepiece of the musical is the role of Mrs Johnstone, abandoned by her husband, fighting poverty as she raises and tries to protect her brood. In this production Lyn Paul returns to the part that she has played many times in the past. Her familiarity with the role pays dividends. She gives a strong performance layered with nuances – the comedy is all there as well as the anguish of giving up her child and having to watch her lost son from afar.
And of course her singing is excellent. It is at its best with the anthem-like ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ at the finale. She gently starts it off and is joined by the rest of the cast as they raise it to an emotional crescendo which causes many an eye to dampen.
No wonder the packed house rose to their feet and gave the show the ovation that it deserved.