What was the first musical you saw? Or more importantly, what was the first musical you saw that completely engrossed you? I’m proud to say that mine was Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End just over five years ago. It’s one of the longest-running musicals in history, but sadly it closed in 2012. However, you can imagine my excitement when I got the chance to come and review it on a brand-new tour produced by Bill Kenwright. Making my way into the Grand Opera House on a rainy November night, I settled in to re-live one of my all-time favourite musicals.
Blood Brothers originally began its journey in the early 80s, starting out as a play in Liverpool before becoming a musical and achieving critical acclaim in the West End. It follows the story of Mrs Johnstone (Lyn Paul), a struggling single mother from Liverpool who can barely afford to feed the mouths of her several children. In a twist of fate, her twin sons Mickey and Eddie (Sean Jones and Mark Hutchinson) grow up to have vastly different lives, but the ominous and omniscient Narrator (Dean Chisnall) warns her and infertile middle class lady Mrs Lyons (Sarah Jane Buckley) of the price they will one day be forced to pay.
It’s sometimes tricky to review musicals that have been running for the length of time that Blood Brothers has. Unlike plays, musicals are rarely adapted into new stagings and directorial concepts, so if anything, a musical must live up to the name it’s established for itself. On that note, I’m very pleased to say that this revival still contains the same electric energy I saw five years ago. Although the set is slightly smaller to fit the Grand Opera House’s stage, that doesn’t stop the cast from filling the stage and auditorium with the unique energy and engrossment Blood Brothers is acclaimed for.
The company contains some incredibly strong performers; Paul delivers a sensitive, nuanced performance as the doomed Mrs Johnstone, while Jones as Mickey conveys a stunning portrayal of a man crushed by classism and the economy, whose roots begin as a mischievous little boy growing up in Liverpool’s slums. Hutchinson also generates a strong performance of a boy growing up in opposite circumstances, and together the pair portray a friendship that, although doomed thanks to the rigours of class, will transcend the limitations of the world they inhabit and beyond.
Blood Brothers has always prided itself on being refreshingly simple, and this certainly stretches to its overall design. Designer Adam Walmsley maintains the Blood Brothers tradition, with many audience members sure to be welcoming the humble North Western brickwork and LED-illuminated backdrop of the Liver Building, along with costumes that have hardly changed over the years. Nick Richings also executes a lovely lighting design that flows smoothly and helps compliment the various atmospheres throughout the production.
This is one musical you must see, whether you’re a theatre student or a general theatregoer. This stunning piece of theatre has never strayed far from its roots, and is truly an epic journey from start to finish. It’s funny, touching and heart-breaking, and the result of some marvellous work on behalf of everyone involved in it. Blood Brothers is truly special, and this incarnation deserves to been wherever it visits, and like its narrative, will continue to transcend the limitations of the society and world it depicts for many more years to come.
Blood Brothers played at the Grand Opera House, York until November 12 and continues on tour.