The Playhouse, Edinburgh
8th – 13th Feb
£14.90 – £41.90
Stagecraft: Libretto : Performance
Bill Kenwright’s production of ‘Blood Brothers’ has stood the test of time better than almost every other musical on the scene, and not for nothing, having clocked up more than 10000 performances in London’s West End, a feat surpassed only by ‘Les Miserables’ and The Phantom of the Opera’.
The script, music and lyrics were written by Willy Russell (of ‘Shirley Valentine’ fame, amongst many others) and first debuted as a school play in his hometown of Liverpool. It then made it to the West End but was not hugely popular until the lauded Bill Kenwright caught a whiff of a fantastic story and begged to be allowed to produce it, which Russell eventually agreed to, of which he is now extremely glad as it has gone on to tour many countries in the wolrd, as far afield as Japan.
The story is classy, classic and about class divide, and it speaks to anyone with a conscience. The subject matter is tragically, once again, becoming more relevant than ever in our current climate of vicious, ruthless targeting of the poor that is happening all across the UK, and of the severe cuts to public services that not only the poor but also us ordinary folks must rely on.
Set in Liverpool ‘Blood Brothers’ spans 2 decades, beginning in the early 1960s. After a long run in London’s West End, Lyn Paul returns to reprise the role of poor, working class, downtrodden matriarch Mrs Johnstone, a role she has performed hundreds of times and her expertise shows.
As a young, single girl she is wooed by a man who tells her she looks ‘just like Marilyn Monroe’ and, craving love and romance, as so many young, naive girls do, she falls for his wiles and ends up with a bun in the oven at a time when illegitimacy was still seen as a frightful shame. Cue the shotgun wedding and, being the good catholics they are (later, when moving home, she insists that, if nothing else, they must rescue the large picture of the pope that hangs in the family parlour!), she pops out 7 babies by the age of 25. Being a kind, warm soul, she does her level best to love them, clothe them and feed them but the strain begins to tell and Hubby Dear repays her by walking out with a younger model- what he doesn’t know is that he left her with a parting gift, in the shape of Baby #8. Despite her devastation, she tries as best she can to get on with the realities of feeding herself and 7 very hungry kids (plus the one inside her) but things go from bad to worse and, soon enough, even the milkman is refusing to deliver any basic groceries until she pays what she owes. Now the kids are going to bed hungry.
At the 11th hour she somehow finds a job as a cleaner, working for a rather uptight but otherwise seemingly decent enough lady from a well to do background, Mrs Lyons, who happens to be childless. Mrs Johnstone eventually confides in her that she is expecting a child but is adamant that this will not affect her work, and she intends to take only one day off work or none at all after giving birth (the sad reality of being poor in the ‘good old days’) but when she later finds out she is actually carrying twins her strength and resolve begin to crumble as she knows that even one new baby will stretch the family to its very limits.
When she shares her news with Mrs Lyons the latter sees her chance to finally have the child her heart has desperately yearned for and she offers to take one of the babies as her own- Mrs Johnstone cannot bear the idea but in the end relents, knowing that she has no other option, lest she is unable to cope and ends up losing all her children to the authorities. Taking advantage of Mrs Johnstone’s superstitious nature and vulnerable position, Mrs Lyons tells her that parted twins must never meet and find out they were both a pair for they will instantly die, and she makes Mrs Johnstone swear their pact on the Bible.
This is where the story really begins and all their heartache plays out, as the two mothers try to keep the boys, Mickey and Edward, apart- to no avail. All the way through the show you know how things are going to end and yet you wish, wish, wish that it were otherwise, feeling sorry for posh young Edward in his lonely, isolated, empty home with a neurotic, suffocating mother, always craving a soulmate, but far sorrier for poor Mickey, who has no advantages whatsoever, is poorly educated and is forever getting into strife because of his hyperactive nature.
Lyn Paul gives a brilliant, solid performance from beginning to end, and her background as a singer shines through as her voice is dazzling and strong and Paula Tappenden is a natural as the nervous, paranoid and frightened Mrs Lyons but the boys really steal the show, bouncing off each other in their younger years, with every class joke plumbed to its very depths and each believing the other to have a far nicer, happier life- how much greener is his grass! Mickey is played as a loveable rogue by an incredibly energetic Sean Jones, who bounces around the stage like Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout, while Eddie is the eager-to-please young fop who so badly wants to be ‘cool’, like the boys from other side of town, that he finally gets up the nerve to defy his controllling mother, much to her horror. A strong supporting cast led by Danielle Corlass as Linda (the love interest of both boys), Peter Washington Laura Harrison as two of Mickey’s older siblings help the story unfold and the narrator, played by Kristofer Harding and his superb voice, keeps everything flowing nicely.
The cast all have cracking voices and the songs hit just the right note- they don’t drag on and on or overshadow the conversation, and they are tuneful and memorable, unlike those of so many other musicals that sound like the performers are just making up bland music as they go.
Memorable songs include ‘Marilyn Monroe’ which is twisted from a cheerful song into a despairing one, ‘The devil’s got your number’, ‘Easy Terms’ and the heartwrenching ‘Tell me it’s not true’.
They are incredibly moving yet perhaps their appeal is that they remain grounded in British class reality, not romantic Disney sentiment.
Overall, I would rank this in the Top 5 musicals of all time- it may not have the incredible sets of Miss Saigon or the dazzling backdrop of The Sound of Music but it touches something in the audience that is undeniable and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the end, along with a standing ovation and encore after encore.
Blood Brothers is a must for die-hard musical-goers and amateurs, alike- this has timeless, ageless appeal and if you go and see it you will find out why.
Reviewer : Maya Moreno