Richmond Theatre, Richmond
Music, lyrics and book by Willy Russell
Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson
The House Full signs were out at Richmond Theatre and notwithstanding that Blood Brothers is now a fixture on the GCSE syllabus leading to coachloads of schoolkids in the audience, to experience a show out-of-town and in a packed theatre was a pre-show treat in itself.
It is 40 years since the show first opened in the West End, with Willy Russell’s ingenious tale still packing a powerfully poignant punch. Niki Colwell Evans plays Mrs Johnstone, the poor young Liverpudlian mother who, on learning that she is pregnant with twins, signs a hellish pact with Paula Tappenden’s barren Mrs Lyons, to give her one of the newborn babies.
Richard Munday is the show’s grim Narrator (this Greek tragedy’s Chorus) steering the narrative, with panache, towards its infernal ending, while Sean Jones and Joe Sleight play respectively Mickey and Eddie, the hapless Johnstone twins whose lives will end so tragically. Olivia Sloyan completes the sextet of key players as Linda, the young girl who grows up as the best friend of the twins and who is to be so tragically connected to their deaths.
All six players are magnificent – with Colwell Evans proving outstanding in her take on the impoverished but loving Mrs Johnstone. Given some of the show’s best songs, she delivers them powerfully and in the finale of Tell Me It’s Not True, with heartbreaking pathos.
But it is not just the principals, it is their excellent supporting troupe that make this a grand night of theatre. The ensemble play an array of little more than two-dimensional characters, there to advance the story and it’s context and not much more. Each tiny vignette however, almost cliched in their creation, is a work of genius in itself such is Russell’s writing talent.
Russell not only captures the ghastly Johnstone/Lyons contract, he offers a chillingly perceptive dissection of English life that echoes with relevance today. Class and snobbery prevail, with the educated privileges that are showered upon Eddie, contrasting with Mickey’s far tougher journey. Eddie goes to university and becomes a city councillor, while Mickey feels the sharp end of deprivation alongside much harsher justice from the local policeman than middle-class Eddie receives.
Set in Liverpool during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the socio-economics of the time for the city’s working class were brutal. In Russell’s excruciatingly brilliant song Miss Jones the recession is cruelly juxtaposed against Mickey and Linda’s shotgun wedding, borne out of her unplanned pregnancy. And look closely at this musical, because there’s more than a nod to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel here too.
Throughout, Matt Malone’s six-piece band rise to the occasion with slick interpretations of Russell’s memorable melodies.
Quite simply, Blood Brothers remains sensational musical theatre. Catchy tunes, perfectly performed, and all framed around a book that is virtually flawless. This production tours for much of the year and when it comes to a town near you, don’t miss it!
Plays until 25th February, then continues on tour
Photo credit: Jack Merriman