“And do we blame superstition for what has come to pass? Or is it what we, the English, have come to know as class?”
I love a Top 20, a Top 10 or a Top 5 and alongside Matilda, Wicked, Cabaret and Little Shop of Horrors, Blood Brothers would easily rank in my Top 5 musicals of all time. What do these outstanding examples of Musical Theatre all have in common? A great plot with songs that advance the story as opposed to a paper-thin one written around a collection of songs which seldom results in a satisfying production (Mamma Mia! and Lazarus are notable exceptions).
Originally developed as a school play, Blood Brothers debuted in Liverpool before Willy Russell transferred it to the West End for a short run in 1983. A socially-conscious work about class, social stratification, and poverty, Blood Brothers was written four years after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came into power during a time of economic stagnation and high unemployment.
The story revolves around dizygotic twins Mickey and Eddie, who are separated at birth, one subsequently being raised in a wealthy family, the other in a poor one. The different environments take the twins to opposite ends of the social spectrum, one becoming a councillor, the other unemployed and in prison.
One of Thatcher’s central political beliefs was that success came to those who chose to work hard. In Blood Brothers, Russell contradicts this view. He shows a divided society by having Mickey and Edward attend very different schools and live in different houses.
So how does it bear up after 40 years? In short, it’s better than ever and depressingly just as relevant today as it was four decades ago.
Niki Colwell Evans plays Mrs Johnstone, the poor, young Liverpudlian mother who, on learning that she is pregnant with twins, agrees to give one away to Mrs Lyons (the excellent Paula Tappenden). Colwell Evans is outstanding in the role with a beautiful singing voice. Her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True had most of the audience reaching for their hankies.
Richard Munday plays the show’s omniscient Narrator with suitable menace while Sean Jones and Joe Sleight play respectively Mickey and Eddie, the Johnstone twins, as like each other as two new pins. Jones is the star of the show progressing from an adorable 7 year old (nearly eight) to a man who has endured a tough journey through life facing class prejudice and snobbery at every corner. Special mention to Amy Murphy who completes the main cast as Linda, the young girl who grows up as the best friend of both twins and who inadvertently creates the final straw that leads to Mickey’s final destructive breakdown. Murphy proves the value of having reliable understudies who can step in at the last moment.
Russell offers a hauntingly perceptive dissection of English life that is perhaps even more astute now than it was during the 1980s. Blood Brothers is not just one of the best musicals ever written, it is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre created in the last 40 years and represents a blistering and merciless attack on the Thatcher government and its divisive policies that resulted in so much pain and misery.
Reviewer: Patric Kearns