Blood Brothers | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 23 January ’18
By Conor O’Neill
When you read the running time of a musical is two hours and forty minutes, a little piece of you dies inside. But when it comes to Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, fear ye not. The time simply flies by. Add on the 15-minute interval and the five-minute standing ovation and what you get for your dollar is three hours of touching, frantic and above all, wonderful night of theatre.
Developed as a school play before hitting the West End in 1983 and picking up an Olivier Award along the way this musical has thrived and survived due to its universal nature; one that speaks to all with a shred of empathy in their souls. Not only does it have the personal connection, anyone with a sibling or parent can relate, but as it was written in Thatcher run Britain during a recession, it as relevant today as then.
But this isn’t Speaker’s Corner politics rammed down the converted choir’s throat. Russell is way too savvy for that. Not an overt political quote is mouthed. Not an utterance of the left or the right. Hence it is ageing with grace.
The backdrop is that of Liverpool, designer Andy Walmsley turns the Opera House’s stage from a grimy city slum to an idyllic country where you can almost smell the hay drying and hear the lambs bleating; disco hall, a public school room, New Brighton holiday resort, the finesse of the Lyon’s stylish town-house and the drudgery of Skelmersdale Lane, the two-up two-down house of the Johnstone family. The evergrowing brood gets too much for lay about Teddy Boy hubby who clears off and relinquishes his responsibilities for a Marilyn Monroe type, a name that pops up again and again throughout the play.
Mrs Johnstone has to pay for the tribe somehow and get work as a charlady for the wealthy – in financial terms – Lyons. The heartily healthy fallopian tubes of Mrs Johnstone are the complete contrast to poor Jennifer Lyons, who, after years of trying has resigned herself to the shameful existence of being a barren mule. You can see where this is heading. Mr Lyons is away on business, with the social on her back and another kid on the way a deal is coerced from the jaded Mrs Johnstone. The fact she carrying twins this time makes it all the easier.
Superstition reigns supreme in the minds of the working classes; broken mirrors, single magpies, shoes on the table… separated twins. The deal breaker is that Mother Johnstone can keep her job and see her son every day. Sworn on the Bible the contract is concrete.
Narrator Mathew Craig not only has a fine singing voice but remains a constant, giving the piece a formality the frantic pace needs to gain a level of solemnity required. Sometimes sang, at others speak with a Northern English authority, he guides the viewer through the up and downs Russell offers. Like all of the 11 cast members, his CV is impeccable. Lyn Paul’s Mrs Johnstone is undoubtedly the lynchpin of the play and it is through her Russell really holds the magnifying glass to the sentiment of the play: not only has she held the role of Mrs Johnstone for 20 years, but way back in the 1970s hers was the voice behind I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, the song that sold millions of bottles of Coca-Cola. From Johnny Carson to Sinatra plus roles in almost every soap on British TV, Paul is approaching living legend status.
The twins, similar in height but obviously not from the same mother are Mickey and Eddie. Sean Jones’ Mickey gets the rough end of the stick and stays with the Johnstone’s. Again his credentials are bulletproof. From Macbeth to Men Behaving Badly to Harry Hill’s TV Burp, Jones has done it all. His energy is infectious, his naivety, refreshing, his chat-up skills in need of improvement. Though DNA they share, Eddie, or Edward to his parents, they have little else comparable. Public schooled, well-heeled and with the silver spoon well and truly stuck in his well-trained mouth, he leads a life of leisure. Yet something keeps pulling him back to Skelmersdale Lane and his blood brother, not only in nature but by a solemn oath as the two each prick a finger and form a pact that no one can break. Or can they?
Linda is Mickey’s love interest, or is she? Danielle Corlass is not only easy on the eye but as shrewd as they come. Though eight of the 11 cast are male, the three women have the most clout. Mrs Johnstone’s is of sheer iron will. Sarah Jane Buckley’s Mrs Lyons is of self-interest and the cruelty only necessity can bring. Linda’s is her street smart and an encyclopaedic knowledge of teenage boys they’ve yet to stumble upon. Even wide-boy brother Sammy can’t hold a mirror to the guile of Linda. Sammy is the brother Mickey has and Eddie wants to have. Always on the make and forever blowing his own trumpet, Daniel Taylor brings a bounce in every scene he’s featured in. A born and bred Scouser, it’s easy to see why he was chosen to play John Lennon in Through a Glass Onion.
The narrator, is his own inimitable style prophesises: “October’s winter broke the promise that summer had made.” Factories are shutting. Another set change sees signs declaring ‘Factory Closed’, ‘Space For Rent’, ‘For Sale’ and ‘Reduced Rent drop from the rigging. The years have moved on. Teenage kicks a thing of the past, Mickey penniless and married with a child of his own sinks firstly into crime and then prison and finally depression dulled by his pill popping ways. His mother laments: “He treats his ills with daily pills, just like Marilyn Monroe.”
And the music? Richard Morris leads the orchestra in the pit below the action. From bombastic drums giving a few scenes a gothic feel, to the lulling of an oboe or clarinet, Russell, I’m sure would be proud to see this production in the GOH. Marilyn Monroe floats in and out of the entirety of the two plus hours, big band dance music has the whole cast rocking, Shoes Upon the Table/Madman is both nails-on-blackboard painful to listen to yet perfect as Mickey delves deeper into insanity.
Seeing is believing and a packed house on opening night before a review has even hit the local press tells you all you need to know. I have it on good word that a few tickets are being released during the run but you’ll have to be ringing that box office early in the day to get a seat. Hell, even the matinees are sold out as buses of school kids will be getting a brilliant baptism of fire in the font of musical theatre. Directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, along with a vast amount of effort and professionalism of all involved gave over 1000 of us a night to remember.