I’ll not beat around the bush. I really enjoyed seeing Blood Brothers on stage for the first time, but for a show often referred to as the “standing ovation musical”, I couldn’t quite grasp the hype.
It feels odd to aim criticism at a production that’s been going longer than I’ve been alive, but I felt as fantastic a story as Willy Russell’s play is, as a musical production, it was surprisingly ordinary.
For those not familiar, the story tells of twin brothers, Mickey and Eddie (Sean Jones and Joe Sleight) who are separated at birth. This happens after their mother, Mrs Johnstone (Niki Colwell Evans), sells one of the boys to her wealthy but childless employer (Mrs Lyons played by Paula Tappenden), as she can’t afford another yet another mouth to feed following her husband walking out on her.
Despite the best efforts of both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons to keep them apart, the brothers, who are raised in completely different social and economic circumstances, do meet and become best friends, or ‘blood brothers’. But, given that the show opens with Mickey and Eddie lying dead on the ground, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the story has a catastrophic ending.
It’s this powerful, almost Shakespearean tragedy, that has helped the production endure at the very top for 40 years, and it’s one of the few musicals where the performers really get to show off their acting chops – an element that I particularly enjoyed about it.
And the acting in this one was excellent, in particular from Sean Jones as Mickey. He somehow makes an effortless transition from his introduction as a cheeky chappy aged seven (“nearly eight”) to a world-weary, troubled soul after misfortune and economic hardship grinds him down to a shadow of his former self in his mid-late 20s. Niki Colwell Evans as Mrs Johnstone was also superb throughout, giving a performance that emanated warm-heartedness in spite of what life had thrown at her character.
It was a very busy production, with lots of comedy bits thrown in to catch the audience off guard in even times of high drama, and plenty to catch the eye wherever you looked on stage. However, with quite a number of short scenes, they probably could have trusted the audience to follow the story and worried less about changing the backdrop and furniture etc.
This may also be a controversial opinion, but as great a vocal performance as we were treated to by Danny Whitehead as the Narrator, I couldn’t help feeling his role was surplus to requirement and actually served to slow proceedings down. There was certainly sections of the production where Mrs Johnstone served a stronger purpose in telling the story, and I couldn’t help feeling the slightly foreboding shadow cast by the Narrator throughout was a little unnecessary. Perhaps I’m missing the point.
All in all though, it’s a very slick production with a lot of heart and poignancy, great acting, and a handful of songs that’ll stick with you for days on end. Blood Brothers continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until Sat 1 July.