You may remember the radio series, “I’ve never seen Star Wars.” The conceit was that the subject had, against the odds, managed to miss something in the zeitgeist. Well this reviewer has managed, somehow, to miss Blood Brothers since its premier 30 years ago. That seems quite a feat as this Willy Russell musical has hardly been away and has almost single-handedly ensured the survival of Kleenex.
This is one of the great tearjerkers, a tuneful melodrama carefully constructed to aim straight for the heartstrings. It’s a very classy show about class.
As a newly paid-up member of the Blood Brotherhood, it is good to report that melodrama though this is, it does have genuine heart and yes, even this grizzled old reviewer had to reach for the tissues as the play reached its climactic, tragic end (this is not a spoiler as the Greek Tragedy format is clearly pointed from the start).
Central to the drama is the role of Mickey – the wrong-side-of-Mersey-tracks twin whose life is on a downward slide. Sean Jones is quite phenomenal as the twin who gets left in his poor working-class family. We follow his life from poor-but-happy childhood. His mum (Maureen Nolan) is a tough, honest but dirt-poor single mum with a brace of kids. This cleaner enters a Faustian pact with her employer to give one of her newborn twins away. What follows is the classic dramatic device of the two twins growing up, not knowing that each is a brother but somehow drawn, in a mystical way, to each other as friends, closer than friends: the eponymous blood brothers. One has to struggle against the odds, the other has a canteen of silver spoons in his mouth. There is a hilarious contrasting scene shifting in a trice from Eddie’s public school to Mickey’s unruly classroom.
One of the many great joys of this show, are the many lively scenes where we see adults playing kids. Jones is a bundle of Scouser scamp, Matthew Collyer convincing as the twin who develops as a middle class goody-goody and Kelly-Anne Gower astonishingly good as Linda who grows from tomboy pal, through tarty teen to anguished adult. Another joy is the rapid-fire pace of the show. There is a genuine delight in simple theatricality – magical transformations with props and clever mimes. By the second half, the piece becomes much darker. Our singing narrator (Craig Price – great voice but his mike set a little too loud and shrill), points the way down for Mickey, the once happy kid dealt a bad deal by the English class system.
Nolan as the lynchpin mum Mrs. Johnson, powers her way through the songs (some a touch repetitive). She has presence but was a touch too chirpy so that we didn’t get much depth to this pivotal character. Tracey Spencer seemed oddly underpowered as the middle class woman who adopts Eddie (the other twin) and turns him into a grammar school wimp. That said, the ensemble cast is pretty damned wonderful and I have hardly seen such inventive lighting as in this show. If you haven’t seen this stalwart of British theatre, now is the time to catch it and like me, end of a lifetime of “I’ve never seen Blood Brothers.”
Blood Brothers is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre Mon 16 - Sat 21 July