I remember hearing a broadcast on Radio 3 once (I know, get me) where the announcer was introducing a performance of Handel’s Water Music. The question arose: why do we have to hear Handel’s Water Music again, it’s so commonplace and everyone knows it, let’s hear something more experimental? The announcer’s response? “Just remember, every time Handel’s Water Music is played, some young person is hearing it for the first time, and what a beautiful moment that is for them”. That’s so true, and it’s the same with Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s been around since the early 80s and hardly ever stops touring in some guise or other; surely we’ve had enough of it now? For the answer to that, gentle reader, you only had to hear the shocked gasps from (I would guess) at least half the packed audience at the Derngate on Monday night to tell you that every time a performance of Blood Brothers takes place, someone sees it for the first time; and what emotional nourishment it provides.
This was the third time we’ve seen it, and it’s been too long a gap. Our first experience was at the Albery (now Noel Coward) theatre in 1988, with Kiki Dee as Mrs Johnstone and Con O’Neill as Mickey. Our second was in 1995, at the Apollo (now back to being called the New) in Oxford, with Clodagh Rodgers as Mrs J and David Cassidy (yes, the David Cassidy) as Mickey. Of course, the first production had Barbara Dickson in the role; and this current touring version stars Lyn Paul. Honestly, where would Mrs Johnstone be without great recording stars of the 1970s?!
Each Mrs J has her own unique characterisation and approach. Kiki Dee was punchy and aggressive, a true fighter. Clodagh Rodgers had a faux-refinement and aspirations to sophistication which meant she had further to fall at the end. Lyn Paul’s Mrs J is running on empty from the start, with dreary memories of her wretch of an ex-husband, exhausted from looking after all those kids and genuinely despairing at the prospect of another two mouths to feed. By the time the show ends, Ms Paul has wrung all her emotions out and is a defeated husk. That’s probably an extremely realistic interpretation.
This show has always had a special place in our hearts, especially Mrs Chrisparkle’s, as, at the age of five, she, along with her parents and brothers, were rehoused from their flat above Fazakerley Post Office, to 65 Skelmersdale Lane – or at least Flamstead, in Skem. Just like the Johnstones, she remembers the green fields, and the fresh air, and so much space everywhere. Away from the muck and the dirt and the bloody trouble, it really was a Bright New Day for everyone.
Looking back now, from the viewpoint of today’s 21st century national austerity, to the strikes, unemployment and poverty of the 1980s, nothing much seems to have changed. After Miss Jones was dismissed from her job, despite being a perfect poppet, as just another sign of the times, I don’t suppose she got another job. The only difference today is that today’s Mr Lyons will be creating his own dismissal letters on Word rather than dictating them to a fetching young secretary. That’s progress. And a wealthy upbringing and education is still much more likely to lead to a successful career than playing on the street, being cheeky with your teacher and becoming factory fodder – or today’s equivalent, zero hours contracts in the gig economy. That’s life, but it’s not progress. The essence of the show is to hold up a mirror of nature against nurture, and value kindness, decency, and friendship. In our land of postcode lotteries, where health, benefits and education can depend on which side of the road you live on, that question why did you give me away, I could have been him? seems more relevant than ever today.
I was very struck this time by how the story is completely infused with elements of superstition all the way through. From the portentous saying that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die, to Mrs Johnstone’s horror at seeing new shoes on the table, to looking a magpie in the eye, to the kids’ games where you can get up again if you cross your fingers, folklore and fear rules the roost. I’d always realised it was heavily melodramatic, starting with the end tableau (although a little more stylised than I’ve seen before), so you know there’s never going to be a happy ending. The gloomy, menacing presence of the Narrator is a constant threat and intrusion on their lives, coming right up close to the characters, like a perpetual harbinger of doom, a bad dream that unsettles and disturbs their waking hours. There is light and shade in this show, but shade wins every time.
The performances are superb throughout. I must confess that, at first, I was not entirely sure about Lyn Paul’s presentation of Mrs Johnstone. Her Mrs J is already thoroughly exhausted by everything that life has thrown at her right at the start of the show, and a vital spark was lacking. But as the show developed, I could see that her quiet, serious portrayal was absolutely correct to the character. And what a voice! It’s so powerful, yet so pure; and so perfectly suited to Willy Russell’s amazing lyrics and melodies. It’s a really wonderful performance.
I was also very impressed with Sean Jones’ Mickey. It’s a role with so many elements and so vital to the success of the show. Willy Russell requires us to love Mickey right from the very start – and we do. Thoroughly believable as that irrepressible eight year old, seeing how high he can spit in the air, never going anywhere without his imaginary horse; then the easily embarrassed teenager at a dirty movie, ashamed of his pubescent body; the enthusiastic young worker, doing the overtime and planning on spending it on great Christmas parties; and then, when the harsh reality of life kicks in, the aggressive, jealous Mickey who realises that his life will lack the texture and depth of his best friend’s; and the broken Mickey relying on medication to keep his brain from dancing. Only Five Ages of Man for Mickey as he dies so young, but Sean Jones nails them all absolutely. We’d all like to have a best friend like Mickey – the younger one, that is; someone who makes you laugh, someone who’ll always be on your side; but isn’t a goody-two-shoes either. No wonder the audience is devastated at the end.
It’s very difficult to portray the eight-year-old Eddie effectively; he’s so posh and innocent, and so different from Mickey that our instant reaction is to mock him rather than side with him. I thought that Mark Hutchinson’s characterisation of him was so wet, and so soft, that it was very unlikely that Mickey would have taken to him. However, once he becomes Eddie the teenager, that’s when he comes into his own. Shag the vicar! Eddie has one of the most telling songs in the show, the restrained and delicate I’m Not Saying a Word, and I really enjoyed Mr Hutchinson’s performance. One character whom in previous productions I’ve always thought of as a bit of an irritant and easily ignored, is Mrs Lyons, but in this production Sarah Jane Buckley gives such a tremendous performance that she is also equally vital to the success of the show. She brings out all the character’s fears and weaknesses; and you readily agree with the diagnosis of others that she probably needs mental health treatment. Ms Buckley also has an amazing voice and is a true credit to the production.
Danielle Corlass’ Linda develops very believably from a squeaky but spirited little girl into a teenager with a massive crush on Mickey, and then into a smart and positive young woman – a very good performance. Dean Chisnall is the least Scouse Narrator I’ve seen (singing “you know the devil’s got your number” and not “nombare”) but has a strong stage presence and great singing voice; and Daniel Taylor’s Sammy, who was always a bad lot, turns that childhood bully into an adult hoodlum with sadly predictable authenticity.
That massive gasp of shock when the brothers died at the end said it all. The audience were so enthralled and wrapped up in what was going on that they couldn’t keep their emotions in. It’s an excellent production of a staggeringly good show, among the very best musicals of all time. It’s enjoying a week at the Royal and Derngate, before continuing its tour to Nottingham, Sunderland, Bath, Belfast, Weston-super-Mare, Aylesbury, Darlington, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Rhyl, Carlisle, Barnstaple, Truro, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Southampton and reaching Manchester in the middle of May. I can’t recommend it too strongly but do book early because everyone else will!