REVIEW: Blood Brothers
It’s hard to imagine a musical which starts at the end and ends with the beginning, but that’s the quirky nature of the brilliant Blood Brothers.
It also ensures that you are hooked from the moment the show’s narrator Marti Pellow begins to tell the captivating story of the Johnstone twins, Mickey and Eddie, who are separated at birth only to be re-united by a twist of fate later in life before ending in tragedy when they reach maturity.
Penned by Liverpudlian author Willy Russell as a school play back in 1982, Blood Brothers was developed as a musical 12 months later although on its debut, it only received modest success despite starring Barbara Dickson as the twin’s mother.
Having transferred to the West End’s Lyric Theatre in April 1983 for a six month run, it was hailed as the Olivier Awards’ Best New Musical while Dickson picked up an Olivier for her performance.
With its roots in Merseyside during the 1960s, Blood Brothers has remained a firm West End favourite for more than two decades while in Bill Kenwright’s latest touring production, Mrs Johnstone is played by the brilliant Niki Evans.
With various members of the Nolan Sisters having taken on the role in recent years, Miss Evans portrayal as the down-trodden Mrs Johnstone struggling to bring up her family in an impoverished Liverpool back street, tugs at the heart strings from the off.
And discovering that she is pregnant for the umpteenth time, she is abandoned by her useless womanising husband who runs off with a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike, the ‘Monroe’ theme running throughout the show’s catchy tunes and lyrics.
Working as a cleaner for the rich, but childless, Mrs Lyons (Tracey Spencer), and when it becomes known that Mrs Johnstone is expecting twins – and there’s simply no way she can afford to look after the offspring she already has – the cunning employer hatches a plan to claim one as her own, especially as her husband is working away for several months and she is desperate to have a baby.
Having made the expectant mum promise that she can never tell of the deception, when the twins were finally born, Mrs Lyons claimed one (Eddie) as her own, telling her distraught employee that if the twins ever meet up, then true to superstition (and there’s plenty of that in Blood Brothers), then they will both die!
Despite leading ostensibly separate lives, the twins naturally gravitate back towards one another and finally become firm friends ... and indeed Blood Brothers!
The hilarious antics as seven-year-olds of Mickey (Sean Jones) and Eddie (Jorden Bird) – “but I’m nearly eight,” exclaims Mickey! – bring the house down while the arrival of Linda (Olivia Sloyan) brings about the love interest later in life.
As time passes and both families move away to the country, they twins meet up again and through a sequence of twists and turns, it all leads to a tragic finale.
Evans gives a fabulous portrayal as Mrs Johnstone, the lyrical and catchy ‘Marilyn Monroe’ setting the standard from the outset. Her heart-rending performance of ‘Easy Terms’ takes the audience with here as she tries to overcome the poverty trap as all her worldly belongings – and her new baby – are taken away from her.
With the privileged Eddie (Bird) idolised by Mrs Lyons, the less fortunate Mickey (Jones) is brought up in poverty by his natural mother while the story unfolds with chart-topping Wet, Wet, Wet front man Pellow singing the story of them growing up on different sides of the tracks.
However that was my problem. As the show’s narrator – and the devil on Mrs Lyons’ shoulder – Pellow seems to irrirate slightly, wandering around the set often acting as a stage hand by moving props and just generally hanging around in his 1960s-style suit.
Pellow also struggled to hide his natural broad Scottish accent and turn it into a half decent Scouse interpretation – a Liverpudlian he certainly wasn’t!
There are so many comical twists, plenty of humour, pathos and love before the show reaches its tragic conclusion with the twins lying dead following a shooting incident.
And that when Mrs Johnstone and the entire company harmonise in the haunting ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ which moves the audience once more to tears while earning the cast a standing ovation.
The sound quality is brilliant. At first you wonder if it’s all a recording but with a seven-piece orchestra in the pit under the leadership of musical director Kelvin Thorpe, three keyboards, various horns, drums and guitars really bring it to life.
It’s several years since I first enjoyed Blood Brothers in London and this performance is easily its equal. It’s truly a touching story of brotherly love while there are some fabulous performances and a powerful piece of theatre well worth seeing over and over again.
Blood Brothers runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday, October 6 with ticket information from the box office at 0844 871 7652 (booking fee) or online booking at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fee).