Lee Henry reviews the unstoppable force that is Blood Brothers
Set against a backdrop of inner-city Liverpool, with the twin towers of the famous Liver Building taking centre stage, Blood Brothers opens with the solemn words of Willy Russell’s narrator. ‘Have you ever heard the story of the Johnstone brothers?’ he asks, as two young men lay down on stretchers and are covered with white sheets.
From stage-right enters a middle-aged woman, hunched in the white light of a single spotlight, lamenting the passing of the young men as the narrator carries on his introduction. ‘Let’s see how she came to play this part.’
Visually it's an astounding scene, Nick Richings' lighting wonderfully atmospheric, the overture tremendously emotive, the sense of expectation palpable. And from the off the audience is gripped, carried away in a rush of song and dance, dark omens and laughs galore.
Russell’s multi-award winning musical tells the tale of Mrs Johnstone, a working-class mother of seven who reluctantly agrees to give away one of her newborn twins to the manipulative, middle-class Mrs Lyons, who is unable to have children herself.
The deal is sealed with an oath on the Bible, with superstitious portents all the while predicting disaster and a curse proclaimed that if ever the twins should meet and discover their true relationship, both will die.
Raised on either side of the class divide, the seven, almost eight-year old Mickey and Eddie soon become unlikely friends and blood brothers, pledged to look out for each other until the end. Along with their friend Linda, they set out on a journey of self-discovery in the streets of 1970s Liverpool.
Destined for divergent paths, the brothers are eventually separated as Eddie goes to Oxbridge while Mickey gets a job in a factory, marries Linda and awaits the birth of his daughter. But this is the time of Thatcher’s recession, and soon Liverpool is a city in turmoil, with jobs far and few between and dole queues trailing into the distance.
Driven to an act of crime, Mickey finds himself in jail, addicted to anti-depressants, becoming a shadow of his former self. Let out early for good behaviour, he continues his slide into depression as Linda is forced to turn to Councillor Eddie Lyons for help. But when Mickey discovers that Linda and Eddie have become more than just friends, the bleak prediction made by the paranoid Mrs Lyons comes true with tragic consequences.
From its modest beginnings as a school play, Blood Brothers has gone on to become one of the most successful musicals ever, thanks in large part to the direction of Bill Kenwright, who, along with Bob Tomson, is still at the helm on this 2007 tour. With so many different cast line-ups over the years, it’s a testament to Kenwright's direction that this production manages to maintain all the power and emotion of the more star-studded line-ups of the past.
Stephen Palfreman (Mickey) and Craig Whiteley (Eddie) play the twins as boys and men, relishing every quip and quarrel the script provides, and their journey from childhood innocence to adult angst is heartrendingly realistic. Whiteley’s portrayal of posh naivety is also particularly amusing.
The supporting cast are just as enthusiastic, especially the hilarious Daniel Taylor as the twins’ madcap older brother Sammy and Vanessa Clarke as the twisted Mrs Lyons. Craig Price as the narrator is suitably threatening, although his voice often fails to carry over the music and as such a lot of his narration is lost to the audience. But this is only a slight annoyance.
If this production belongs to anyone, however, it belongs to the indomitable Linda Nolan. Reprising her role as Mrs Johnstone after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Nolan is flawless throughout, belting her way through Russell’s songs with all the heart of a lion.
Her journey from happy-go-lucky singleton to middle-aged grandmother is utterly believable, and her powerhouse performance brings the audience to its feet even as the final notes of Tell Me It’s Not True still fill the hall. As the cast emerge for their standing ovation, Nolan wipes the tears from her eyes and punches the air, triumphant once again.