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Blood Brothers at Richmond Theatre | Review

It’s half a century since Willy Russell’s passionate musical about twins separated at birth became a West End hit, with Barbara Dickson and then Kiki Dee in the role of the boys’ anguished mother, Mrs.Johnstone. On the evidence of this latest revival, the work, directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, is looking good for its age.

Timothy Lucas as Sammy and Sean Jones as Micky.
Timothy Lucas as Sammy and Sean Jones as Micky.

If Shakespeare’s play about twins separated in a shipwreck was a Comedy of Errors, Russell’s is a tragedy of good intentions, with that reliable bad guy, the English class system, as a villain of the piece. Unable to provide for two babies, Mrs. J entrusts one of them, Edward – in effect sells him – into the care of the childless posh lady, Mrs. Lyons, for whom she house-cleans. The other one, Mickey, she keeps for her own, and in the process sets up a storyline devoted to the rival roles of nature and nurture.

Viewed unemotionally, and in a monochrome England seriously up against it, the arrangement has its merits. The problem, of course, is that unemotional viewing, for the audience as much as for the characters, is out of the question. That’s the whole idea, and a properly dramatic one it is too.

Russell has said he got the inspiration from a short story he had read some years earlier, but his working of it into a fully-blown West End hit, full of folk-inflected anthems, was an oddly beguiling breath of air, or airs, in a domain largely dominated by Lloyd-Webber and Sondheim. It retains some of that status.

Russell’s own backstory is worth recalling here. Born in the Lancashire town of Whiston, he left school when he was fifteen and worked as a ladies’ hairdresser. Before he was twenty he was running his own salon but hankering after a return to education – just as his later heroine was to do a few years later in his Educating Rita.

In this production, we find Niki Colwell Evans as the well-meaning but chaotic Mrs. Johnsone trading with Paula Tappenden’s desperate but entitled Mrs. Lyons.

Easy to be wise all these years after the event, but the moral, indeed morality of the drama comes into view as the two boys’ paths cross without them having any inkling of their own genetic inseparability. And this surely is at the heart of Russell’s intentions.

Easy enough to be wise after the event, but wouldn’t the tragic outcome of the boys’ eventual contact have been averted if only they had been informed of their own brotherhood? In this respect, and viewed from almost two generations later, the true villains are not to be found in the characters so much as in the social prevalence of deceit. And if Russell is pointing a finger, it seems to be aimed at the classes – i.e. all of them – which put themselves and their supposedly loved ones in hock to such duplicity.

This makes the revival rather a timely one, even if you believe that our relatively recent hyperconnectivity has taken disclosure and confession to an equally suspect prominence.

Colwell Evans gives a moving performance as the overburdened and under-resourced Mrs. Johnstone, with Sean Jones’s Mickey and Joe Sleight’s Eddie full-on as the womb-mates condemned to a secret inheritance and tragic ending. The Thompson/Kenwright direction keeps the show bright in the face of its own darkness, and the band, under the direction of Matt Malone, points up the solid melodies of a truly versatile playwright. A sentimental evening, all these years on from its premiere? The material invites such a judgement without entirely fulfilling it.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

This epic tale of Liverpool life started as a play, performed at a Liverpool comprehensive school in 1981, before opening in its first version of the musical at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983. The musical has since triumphed across the globe, completing sell-out seasons in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, and scooping up four awards for Best Musical in London and seven Tony Award nominations on Broadway.

Sean Jones (Mickey), Richard Munday (Narrator), Joe Sleight (Eddie), Paula Tappenden (Mrs Lyons), Olivia Sloyan (Linda), Timothy Lucas (Sammy), Tim Churchill (Mr Lyons), Nick Wilkes (Policeman/Teacher), Gemma Brodrick (Donna Marie/Miss Jones), Connor Bannister (Perkins), Josh Capper (Neighbour), Amy Murphy (Brenda) and Jacob Yolland (Bus Conductor).

Richmond Theatre
Until Sat 25 Feb 2023

Bristol Hippodrome
Tue 29 Aug – Sat 2 Sep 2023

Theatre Royal Brighton
Tue 3 Oct – Sat 7 Oct 2023

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  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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