“So did y’hear the story of the Johnstone twins/As like each other as two new pins…/How one was kept and one given away?” enquires the Narrator at the opening of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s hard to believe that there are many dedicated theatre-goers who haven’t heard this particular story by now. For Blood Brothers has proved to be one of the most enduring of contemporary musicals, graduating from its fairly modest beginnings as a school play produced in conjunction with Merseyside Young People's Theatre to become an Olivier-honoured phenomenon, a national and international touring success and a seemingly permanent fixture in London’s West End. (Russell discussed the show's development at length in an excellent Masterclass that I had the pleasure of attending a couple of years ago.)
The current London revival of the show (directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson), which opened in 1988 and has been at its current home, the Phoenix Theatre, for over 20 years, is one of the longest-running productions in history, remaining, equally, a draw to tourists and a show that people return to see again - some, apparently, over 100 times. And while the rather sparsely-attended matinee performance that I went to yesterday didn’t precisely attest to the show’s enduring appeal, the warm and enthusiastic response that the performance received from the audience certainly did.
In many ways, Blood Brothers is a rather surprising success story, since it’s a musical that subverts the expectations of its genre to some extent. Rooted - like all of Russell’s work - in the experiences of working-class Liverpool life, determinedly unglamorous and unromantic, the piece also boasts a tragic ending, one that’s announced immediately from the show’s striking opening tableau. On the other hand, it might be argued that it’s precisely the way in which Blood Brothers cuts against the grain of traditional musical theatre that’s allowed the show to carve out its own distinctive niche over the years. That, plus an irresistibly heart-tugging melodramatic premise, a memorable, atypical heroine, and, most importantly, the massive humanity that characterises Russell’s writing and that lights up every line of this show, whether spoken or sung.
Loosely based on the 1844 novella The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, the plot of Blood Brothers revolves around the separation of twins Mickey and Eddie by their mother Mrs. Johnstone who, deserted by her husband and unable to support her ever-growing family, enters into a fateful pact with her employer, Mrs. Lyons, for the latter to bring up one of the children as her own. The twins' different upbringings take them to opposite ends of the social spectrum, but their fates remain intertwined, despite the two women’s efforts to keep them apart.
While the show is very much an ensemble piece, it’s the put-upon Mrs. Johnstone who remains the central figure. And the extraordinary roll-call of singers and actresses who’ve played her - Barbara Dickson, Carole King, Stephanie Lawrence, Clodagh Rodgers, Kiki Dee, Lyn Paul, a Spice Girl (Mel C), and (count 'em!)four Nolan sisters (Linda, Bernie, Denise and Maureen) - attests to her appeal. In the current production, Vivienne Carlyle brings open-hearted warmth, humour and sensuality to her portrayal, her rich, sultry voice conveying the character’s yearnings, grievances and her capacity for happiness with equal power. Her delivery of the lovely "Easy Terms," the buoyant "Bright New Day," the biting "Marilyn Monroe" and the immortal show-stopper "Tell Me It’s Not True" are especially fine, and her scenes with Paul Christopher’s Eddie particularly touching.
The other roles are well-performed too. Abigail Jaye expertly conveys Mrs. Lyons’s fears and prejudices and Mark Rice-Oxley compellingly charts Mickey’s downward spiral, while, understudying for Louise Clayton, Danielle Corlass (a dead ringer for Sheridan Smith here) is terrifically funny and touching as Linda, the girl who both brothers end up falling for. Only Phillip Stewart, as the Mephistophelian Narrator, looks like he might have played his role once or twice too often, contributing a solid but not outstanding turn as this important figure.
With strong, simple and sometimes derivative melodies, and an opening sax-and-synth salvo that immediately transports the viewer into a 1980s timewarp, Russell’s score isn’t the richest on the block. But its mixture of soft rock, jaunty vaudeville and big, emotive ballads certainly does the job, emphasising the show’s distinctive blend of comedy and tragedy, folk opera and soap opera, the epic and the everyday. The show remains a powerful piece of work, and at a time when revivals of musicals evoking old-Hollywood glamour - from Top Hat to Singin' in the Rain - are seeming to dominate the West End once again, the grittier vision offfered in the ineffably British Blood Brothers feels especially welcome as a contrast.