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Theatre Review: Blood Brothers

Cara Lee reviews Willy Russell's masterpiece musical, Blood Brothers, currently performing in York's Grand Opera House.

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Image Credit: Jack Merriman

Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers has been nicknamed the ‘Standing Ovation Musical’, and for good reason.  It is a masterpiece of musical theatre, and York is currently lucky enough to be hosting the production at the Grand Opera House, as part of its current 16-week UK tour.  And spoiler – there was, of course, a standing ovation.

Very few musicals have been as successful and critically acclaimed as Blood Brothers.  Bill Kenwright’s production of it has exceeded 10,000 performances in London’s West End, and so York’s beautiful Grand Opera House was full to the brim with eager and expectant visitors.  The excitement was buzzing around the theatre: getting back to visiting theatres after the pandemic is exciting enough in itself, but to see Blood Brothers?  The anticipation was palpable.

Taking a look at the audience showed Blood Brothers’ almost universal appeal. There were large groups of students and friends, and gaggles of school trips, as well as families and couples of all age ranges, and it was lovely to see people returning to something quite normal.

Blood Brothers, written by Willy Russell, premiered at Fazakerley Comprehensive in Liverpool, in November 1981, before opening fully at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983.  Since then, the support for Blood Brothers hasn’t ceased. It has enjoyed constant worldwide success, receiving four awards for Best Musical in London and seven Tony Award nominations on Broadway.

The story follows the Johnstone family, a poor, working-class Liverpudlian family with seven children, and two more on the way.  Mrs Johnstone – fantastically played by 2007 The X Factor finalist Niki Evans, who first joined Blood Brothers when the show was in the West End – works for the wealthy Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden). Upon finding out she is expecting twins, Mrs Johnstone realises she cannot afford to raise both and so she comes to an agreement with Mrs Lyons, who has always wanted a child, but whose husband hasn’t been willing to adopt. They agree to separate the twins, on the condition that Mrs Johnstone can still see Eddie every day, and that neither Eddie nor Mickey find out they have a twin.

Mickey (Sean Jones) grows up in Mrs Johnstone’s busy, bustling household, constantly getting up to mischief with his brother Sammy (Danny Taylor) and their friends.  His life is at complete odds with Eddie (Joel Benedict), who enjoys a very sedate, quiet life of luxury.  Mrs Lyons’s threat that when Mickey and Eddie realise they’re related something dreadful will happen rings in our ears throughout the play, and so they’re banned from seeing each other again, or playing out in the street together anymore.

Unfortunately, despite their mothers’ best intentions, by this point, Eddie and Mickey have already decided they are going to be blood brothers.

Mrs Johnstone gives Eddie a locket to remember them by, and then it isn’t until much later in their lives that the twins meet again. We follow their lives in fragments, navigating the constant shifting of family bonds, relationships, work, and mental health. The audience members were so engrossed in the story and in the terrific acting, that the final climax sent shockwaves around the Grand Opera House.

Seeing Sean Jones as Mickey was fantastic, as he has almost become synonymous with Blood Brothers, having played Mickey in both the West End and Touring productions.  His skill at playing both young carefree Mickey and a much more troubled Mickey later in life was perfectly executed – which is not surprising, when for many people, Jones is Mickey.  Seeing Jones’s reprisal of the character in his last ever tour of the show was fantastic, and something that won’t be easily forgotten.

Niki Evans’s performance was also remarkable; even during the bows at the end of the performance, she still looked to be in character, as though she had become so absorbed by Mrs Johnstone that the two were intertwined. Though it wasn’t noticeable from her stellar performance, Evans’s return to the role was accompanied by some nerves: “I last played her in 2012 and returning to it was scary at first.  The first time I did it I’d never done a musical or been a part of the theatre world so when Bill Kenwright called me I think I turned it down four times...  But he saw something in me and within a week I was on stage in the Phoenix Theatre.  It was such a whirlwind.  Since then, I’ve done lots of other roles, mainly funny ones, so to come back to such a dramatic role is very scary but it’s like a dream come true.  They’d asked me to come back before, but I had to be ready, and now I am.”

For me however, the standout star was the narrator, played by Robbie Scotcher, whose ominously rhyming depictions of fate sent chills through the audience.  ‘Shoes Upon the Table’ perfectly showcased Scotcher’s voice, and his constant presence yet distance to every scene added to the immensely full, energetic atmosphere of every part, and created an eeriness which meant the ending (which was performed at the beginning) was always on your mind.

Knowing the outcome of the musical means that it’s difficult to forget what’s going to happen – it’s an emotional rollercoaster, but knowing what is going to happen doesn’t make it any easier to cope with.  Evans notes that it’s the same for performers: “There are a couple of parts in the show, without giving spoilers, where it rips me to shreds.  I do it as though someone is about to take one of my children and I can’t hold back.  I have to feel it every time I do it.”  The performance ended with the beautiful ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, during which many tears were shed.

Blood Brothers is being performed in York’s Grand Opera House until Saturday 9 April, before the final leg of the tour takes the musical to Tunbridge Wells, Derby, Cornwall, and Mold.  If you are able to purchase some of the scant few tickets there are left, Blood Brothers is definitely worth seeing; it’s an unforgettable performance.

Nouse would like to extend their thanks to York Grand Opera House for tickets to Blood Brothers.

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