'They’ve got your number and they’re knocking at your door' - Blood Brothers comes to the Millennium Forum

The timeless 'standing ovation musical' is set to make you laugh, cry and sing along at Derry's Millennium Forum

Most teenagers will have found themselves gazing out of the classroom window taking an exceptional interest in that plastic bag blowing in the wind- anything but pay heed to the ‘hilarious’ hidden jokes within Shakespeare. Cue exasperated groans at Mercutio’s ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.’

But Romeo and Juliet this is not, rather Blood Brothers which has also held steadfast on the GCSE English Literature syllabus. Willie Russell’s Liverpool-based tale provided a welcome escape from the puffed-up dramas of Shakespeare. Following the tale of twins separated at birth only to meet again with dire consequences, this behemoth of the stage was for many their first glimpse into musical theatre. Proving that theatre could not only be accessible but enjoyable, the ‘standing ovation musical’ is a story that never leaves you.

Currently on the Dublin leg of the sell-out tour, Culture NI caught up with Rebecca Storm to chat about her seminal role as Mrs Johnstone. Beginning our conversation, I feel comfortable immediately as Storm exudes the warmth and innate kindness of a quintessential mother figure. 

Exhausted, she tells me the ‘absolutely gruelling’ schedule is worth it as the newest rendition is in ‘great shape.’ Having just completed a mammoth tour with Calendar Girls, Storm takes it all in her stride. Reprising the role of Mrs Johnstone for the 'thirteenth or fourteenth time' Storm has played the character on and off now for the last 36 years. ‘Oh is it that long?’ she laughs ‘Well I’m a pensioner now I suppose.’

Securing the role at just 25 years old, the singer took a chance after seeing an advertisement in ‘The Stage’ newspaper and auditioned for the relatively unknown play. Already a talented and well-established cabaret singer, having supported the likes of Bob Monkhouse and Tommy Cooper, Storm was better accustomed to the pubs and clubs of Huddersfield than musical theatre. 

‘It was a stroke of serendipity,’ she says modestly, ‘Had I known that Mrs Johnstone was a Liverpudlian mother of seven I would never have auditioned!’ After receiving her script in the post, Storm recounts her mother laughing aloud at the likelihood her daughter would bag the part of the downtrodden mother. ‘I thought, thanks for the support mother dear,’ she adds. 

But playwright Willie Russell, enamoured with her powerful voice, had to have the wet behind the ears actress as Mrs Johnstone and ordered makeup to ‘age her up.’

‘Hand on heart, I was very inexperienced. I’d never had an acting gig before but I got away with it thanks to the teaching and constant support of [Director] Chris Bond,’ she gushes ‘He was quite frankly amazing.’

Debuting as Mrs Johnstone alongside renowned actor Peter Capaldi as her biological son Eddie, Storm fell in love with a character that would accompany her for decades to come. From a twenty-something who had seen little of the world to becoming a mother herself, the queen of musical theatre accepts that her interpretation of Mrs Johnstone has developed with time. ‘It’s definitely more natural. She’s in my bones after all these years.’

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Drawing on her own family experience, Storm tells me her own mother is intrinsic to her portrayal of Mrs Johnstone. ‘She’s there definitely. My father died when I was eight, so my mum raised us herself - she loved to go dancing too, so there are many similar elements there.’ 

Adding that her family ‘wasn’t as poor as the Johnstones’ Storm said she completely understands their struggle. The figure of Mrs Johnstone won’t be too far of a stretch of the imagination for plenty in the Maiden City also; reminiscent of our Factory Girls single-handedly raising large families under challenging circumstances. 

Even Mrs Johnstone’s superstitions, 'New shoes on the table, take them off' is a warning imprinted in many a childhood memory here; it is that relatability which has allowed the fictional matriarch to capture the hearts of audiences everywhere.  

So how is Storm able to keep the love of the show alive after all these years? With the help of a brand new cast bringing a fresh outlook to the latest reincarnation, I am assured the passion is still there. 

Blood Brothers has never lost it’s magic for me no, I have had so many people come up after the show, I remember one in particular who said it was their tenth time seeing it,’ she says, adding that the enduring allure is owed to Russell’s first-class writing. ‘The storyline is so powerful and very funny. It holds an awful lot of relevance to so many people; I’d say 95% of people can see their own life reflected on that stage.’

Small details like that of Mr Wong’s Chinese takeaway where a teenage Micky, Eddie and Linda hang out is engraved in Storm’s own memories of growing up.‘That moment is captured so brilliantly,' she explains, 'Everyone can remember being that age, sitting outside the Chinese, chippy or wherever with your mates.’ Shared experiences such as these, and of course the fabulous score, cements Blood Brothers’ place as one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

With a classic score including crowd-pleaser ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and the poignant crescendo ‘Tell me it’s not true’ bringing the show to its emotionally charged conclusion, theatregoers will no doubt be on their feet uproarious as Blood Brothers comes to the Millennium Forum. So, as Storm prepares to once more greet her old friend Mrs Johnstone, Derry audiences should prepare themselves for a night of heartrending classic drama. 

 As Storm herself puts it, ‘Good old Willy Russell eh?’

Blood Brothers will play at the Millennium Forum, Derry from Tuesday 3 March to 7 March. Tickets can be purchased online at www.millenniumforum.com/tickets or call the Box Office on 028 7126 4455.