It is a rare show that can bring an audience to its feet in spontaneous applause night after night. For Blood Brothers to do this for 35 years without any major production changes makes us think creator Willy Russell must have sifted some secret hypnotic powers into his script.
It’s an exceptional record and one that continues. If Russell does have a secret ingredient it’s his timeless combination of humour and heart that still packs the same emotional punch it did when the show opened at Liverpool Playhouse in 1983.
The story of twin boys separated at birth started as a play performed in a Liverpool comprehensive school in 1981. Incredibly Russell wrote the book, lyrics and music for the show, which although is one of the most popular musicals in history is probably better thought of as a play with music. Much of it is spoken, with songs used in a filmic way to add to the emotional climaxes of the story, no more so than the heart-breaking, ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’.
And what a story it is. We watch Mrs Johnstone go from a happy-go-lucky young girl, spinning with her smooth-talking dance partner who tells her she’s Liverpool’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, to being an exhausted single mother of 7, living hand-to-mouth in a run-down terraced house in Liverpool where baliffs will even snatch a teddy bear.
Shortly after her husband walks out, Mrs Johnstone discovers she’s pregnant again. She takes on a cleaning job and believes she’ll just about manage to feed another mouth. Then news from the doctor comes – there’ll not be just one mouth to feed but two.
Desperate, Mrs Johnstone agrees to allow her wealthy employer, Mrs Lyons to bring up one of the twins as her own. In this secret pact the women set off a chain of events that we know from the start will not end well.
Linzi Hateley powerfully captures the warmth, desperation and heart of Mrs Johnstone. In contrast, Paula Tappenden plays Mrs Lyons as cold and removed, but more from anxious insecurity than malice. Both women are portrayed as fully human and it is this that draws us in and keeps us hooked.
There is terrific on-stage chemistry between Alexander Patmore and Joel Benedict as twins, Mickey and Edward, capturing the playfulness of childhood as well as the harsh reality of Thatcher’s Britain.
And although the narrator, a prophesying Robbie Scotcher, warns us of the tragedy ahead, for the most part the interaction between characters is acutely observed and very funny.
Underlying this tale of two sides of the Mersey is the debate of nature vs nurture, and more prominently the role class plays in determining our destiny. Sadly, much of this still rings hollowly true today. But in the tragic twins’ story, while we reach for the tissues we also stand in hope, knowing those two sides of the track, while worlds apart in one sense, are closer than we think.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Read our interview with Linzi Hately on becoming Mrs Johnstone.