Book, Music and Lyrics: Willy Russell
Directors: Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
“Why couldn’t I be like Eddie?”, Mickey Johnstone seems to be crying at the climax of this musical, jealous of his friend’s advantages in life. Mickey is from the wrong side of the tracks and near the end of a seemingly inevitable downward spiral. Eddie, his friend, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and with the world at his feet. We know, of course, that they are in fact twins, separated at birth.
Blood Brothers opened in the West End in 1983 winning the Olivier Awards for Best New Musical and Best Actress in a Musical (Barbara Dickson) that year. It had become the third longest running West End musical by the time of its close in 2012, so it certainly has an impressive pedigree. Watching the story of the Johnstone twins, it is clear that the key to its longevity and continuing popularity is the quality of Willy Russell’s writing. He took the unusual decision to write the book, music and lyrics and the coherence this brings adds another dimension to this emotionally charged musical.
The story follows two families: the Johnstones – a stereotypical working class story of early marriage, too many children and an absent husband; and the Lyons, wealthy, aspirational but childless. To make ends meet, Mrs Johnstone cleans for the Lyons. When Mrs Johnstone discovers her husband’s parting gift is as yet unborn twins she is distraught and a pact is sealed that she will give Mrs Lyons one of her babies. Despite their mothers’ efforts, the seven year old Mickey and Eddie encounter one another and their lives become entwined. Not recognising themselves as twins, they nevertheless strike an immediate friendship and become Blood Brothers. This sequence is a joy as they play, skip and generally love being boys without a care in the world – the essence of being seven is beautifully and lovingly captured.
The friendship endures separation and an attraction to the same girl, but nurture takes over as an unemployed and recently married Mickey falls under the spell of his wayward brother and is sent to prison. Edward, on the other hand, has all the advantages that money can bring and, despite flashes of Mickey-esque stubbornness at his boarding school, becomes a successful pillar of the community.
So, although this is a story of how effectively the destiny of one person can be set by the class in which he finds himself, Russell cleverly suggests that it is the overcrowded hand-to-mouth existence of the Johnstones, an existence full of unconditional love and acceptance that is the more desirable, even if the children are tearaways barely on the right side of the law.
The story is presided over by a mysterious funereal narrator. He veers between melancholy and anger as he regularly reminds us of the boys’ situations and acts as conscience for both women. At this performance, Tim Churchill stood in for the indisposed Warwick Evans in this rôle striking exactly the right note. His singing voice is very fine too, if just occasionally made difficult to hear by the sound balance. The brothers, Mickey and Eddie, are played by Sean Jones and Mark Hutchinson, both revisiting rôles they played in the West End. This experience shines through as they play their parts with assurance. Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone shows her range off as she plays the kindly mother. Her voice has tremendous power so that her final rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True, full of distress, is truly spinetingling. The whole is supported by a clever and evocative set from Andy Walmsley that effortlessly moves from back-to-back houses, to classy interiors or the new town of Skelmersdale.
A powerful fable, still watchable and relevant and well worth catching on its current tour. It thoroughly deserved the ecstatic standing ovation it received.
Runs until 4th May