Melissa Blease reviews Blood Brothers, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 20 January

Back in 1981, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s closest cohorts advised her not to waste money trying to “pump water uphill” in any kind of effort to halt Merseyside’s decline. Liverpool was a riot-torn wasteland, unemployment was at an all-time high and children’s wards in hospitals were reporting a frightening increase in the number of emergency cases diagnosed with protein energy malnutrition – a condition usually seen in developing countries, not cities of the first world.

Meanwhile, at Fazakerly Comprehensive School, the debut of a musical originally commissioned by Merseyside Young People’s Theatre Company was to become a fanfare for a brand new dawn.

Dramatist, lyricist and composer Willy Russell (Educating Rita; Shirley Valentine) used Blood Brothers as a tool to highlight the contradictions of Thatcher’s central political beliefs while bringing the realities of an increasingly rich/poor divided society and an accessible comment on the nature/nurture debate to the stage. In 1983, Russell developed the show for a production at Liverpool Playhouse, where it received only modest acclaim. Today, the Laurence Olivier award-winning ‘Liverpudlian folk opera’ about a pair of twins separated at birth is one of British musical theatre’s biggest success stories.

Its 1987 revival played more than 10,000 consecutive performances during its 24-year West End run, while simultaneous international touring productions consistently garner critical acclaim – not bad for a musical melodrama concentrating on themes of dysfunctional family loyalty, tragedy, unwanted pregnancies, brutality, archaic superstitions, poverty and depression.

Deserted by her husband when pregnant yet again, Mrs Johnston lives with her existing brood of children in a council tenement block. Broke, broken and desperate, she allows her snooty, childless employer Mrs Lyons (for whom Mrs Johnston ‘cleans house’) to unofficially adopt one of her newborn twin boys.

The boys’ lives take very different directions, but an apparently unbreakable, perhaps fatalistic bond remains; against all odds, they grow up as friends, eventually even falling in love with the same woman. But despite the original vow of secrecy taken between both ‘mothers’, the pact is eventually broken – with tragic consequences.

Sean Jones (Mickey) and Mark Hutchinson (Eddie) are superbly cast in their title roles, even carrying off that tricky task of adults-playing-children with believable aplomb, wit and and character. Jones in particular pulls off a remarkably emotive transformation from imaginative, energetic little boy to battered, depressed, medication-addicted adult, via carefree teenager living for the marvellous moments with his mates in tow. Sarah Jane Buckley (as Mrs Lyons) is appropriately buttoned-down and neurotic, Danielle Corlass (as love interest Linda) is sassy, smart jailbait personified, narrator Mathew Craig oozes devilishly sinister charisma, while designer Andy Walmsley’s evocative set (a twinkling Liverpool skyline with the iconic Liver Buildings at its heart) and the uniquely lilting scouse twang of most of the dialogue ensures that we never forget exactly where in the UK this drama is set.

But it’s Lyn Paul as the tragic but feisty Mrs Johnston who steals the show, as the contemporary version of the not-so-old woman who lives in a shoe. Her singing voice is made for soaring, and her empathy for her character is second to none; it’s easy to see why fans including the show’s producer and director Bill Kenwright are happy for her to be crowned ‘the definitive Mrs Johnstone’ despite tough competition from Barbara Dickson (the original Mrs J), Linda Nolan, and Carole King (in the Broadway production).

It’s easy, too, to see why Blood Brothers has been affectionately christened the ‘Standing Ovation Musical’ – and when we saw it, it duly received the first whole-house standing ovation I’ve seen at the Theatre Royal for quite some time. While there’s no glimmer of happy-ending hope for any of the characters involved, there’s something oddly uplifting about the journey we’re carried along on. Even the most jaded amongst us can surely forgive the sometimes heavy-handed class war themes, the syrupy sentimentality and the slightly clumsy stereotyping of both middle and working class idiosyncrasies, simply because, in the overall context of a story that’s based on a highly unlikely premise from the off (and couldn’t the same be said of most stage-shows-with-songs?), subtlety just wouldn’t work.

Ar-aye la; Blood Brothers is dead good.