Playing at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 12 March
Back in 1983, dramatist, lyricist and composer Willy (Educating Rita; Shirley Valentine) Russell used Blood Brothers as a tool to highlight the contradictions of Margaret 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.
Russell developed the show for a production at the 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 over 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 Sammy 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 twins. The boy’s 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.
Niki (X-factor) Evans is a wonderful Mrs Johnstone, the contemporary version of the tragic but feisty not-so-old woman who lives in a shoe; her singing voice is made for soaring, and her empathy for the character is palpable. Paula Tappenden’s Mrs Lyons is appropriately buttoned-down and neurotic; Joel Benedict injects just the right amount of The Beano’s Walter the Softyinto his role as Mrs Lyons’ ‘son’ Eddie; as love interest Linda, Carly Burns is sassy, smart jailbait personified… and throughout it all, Narrator Robbie Scotcher oozes devilishly sinister charisma. Meanwhile, 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 seasoned Blood Brothers veteran Sean Jones who ultimately steals the show in the role of Mickey, carrying off that tricky task of adult-playing-a-child with aplomb, wit and and character before undertaking 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.
While there’s no glimmer of happy-ending hope for any of the characters involved in the storyline there’s something oddly uplifting about the Blood Brothers’ journey we’re carried along on, and it’s easy to see why it’s been affectionately christened the ‘Standing Ovation Musical’; duly living up to its reputation, the show received well-deserved, whole-house-standing thundering applause on the opening night of the Bath run. But 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.