Blood Brothers continues to live up to its reputation as the “standing ovation musical,” finds Georgina Wells
Blood Brothers tours the UK once again – stopping at the Palace Theatre for 12 nights – it is easy to see why Willy Russell’s musical has become so perennially popular. With its combination of epic tragedy and everyday domestic comedy, and a plot based on the ever-intriguing concept of twins separated at birth, the story of Eddie and Mickey has moved and entertained audiences since its premier in the early 1980s.
Born to an impoverished single mum, the Johnstone twins are separated when their mother agrees to give one of them away to her wealthy but childless employer, Mrs Lyons. Despite their mothers’ best efforts, the boys eventually meet and become friends, their footsteps dogged all the while by a sinister Narrator figure who embodies fate and the women’s superstitions.
Stylistically, the show doesn’t always hit the right notes. While the scene changes are slick and often ingenious, the use of vivid red and purple lighting, vocal echo effects and bright spotlights can feel excessive. This is particularly true of the Narrator’s interventions, which grow increasingly ominous as the show progresses to the point of being almost comical. The dramatic drumbeat motif is strongly reminiscent of the EastEnders theme tune, a product of the same decade; it’s an apt similarity given the show’s soap-like storyline and moments of melodrama, such as Mrs Lyons’ attempt to stab her son’s birth mother and her subsequent mental collapse.
Niki Evans portrays the indefatigable Mrs Johnstone with warmth and wryness – her singing vocals are powerfully moving, particularly in the show’s signature number ‘Tell Me It’s Not True,’ but her Scouse accent is noticeably inconsistent.
Joel Benedict (Eddie) and Josh Capper (Mickey) perform the roles of the brothers throughout, equally good as excitable children and awkward, randy teenagers as adults disillusioned by reality. Their scenes together are among the most moving and entertaining moments of the show, building a foundation for its devastating finale – a fact that’s all the more impressive considering Capper is an understudy, swapped in at short notice due to COVID. Sammy (Pete Washington) is also a cast change, a testament to the ongoing challenges faced by companies and the versatility of their performers.
It is a controversial suggestion, given the show’s enduring success, but it would be interesting to see a production of Blood Brothers with some elements updated. While the theme of class and social divides is sadly still very relevant in post-Brexit Tory Britain, the portrayal of Mickey as needlessly, even selfishly, dependent on his anti-depressants is exactly the kind of storyline that has contributed to stigma around mental health; the fact that tragedy only occurs when he comes off the pills could be highlighted more clearly.
Blood Brothers continues to live up to its reputation as the “standing ovation musical,” bringing the Palace Theatre to its feet at the finale. Perhaps, as with the works of Shakespeare, different productions and casts will start to experiment with the staging and tease out new elements to the story over time – this reviewer hopes so, but for now it seems most audiences are content with the show exactly as it is.