United Kingdom. Willy Russell: Blood Brothers: Birmingham Hippodrome, 14.10.2014 (GR).
Mrs Johnstone: Maureen Nolan
Narrator: Kristofer Harding
Mickey Johnstone: Sean Jones
Eddie Lyons: Joel Benedict
Mrs Jennifer Lyons: Kate Jarman
Linda: Danielle Corlass
Direction: Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright
Designs: Andy Walmsley
Sound: Dan Samson
Musical Supervisor: Tom de Keyser
Lighting: Nick Richings
Did you hear the story of the Johnstone twins? So begins the Narrator of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. Many people haveheard it. The award-winning show premiered in 1983 and ran in London’s West End for 24 years – one of only three musicals to do so. Birmingham Hippodrome opened its first UK tour in 1995 and now nineteen years later the international hit has returned for an incredible ninth season at the theatre. This present run opened on 13th Oct 2014; I got the rush of blood on the 14th, when an almost full house gave it a time-honoured standing ovation.
Back to that story. While Russell’s twentieth century narrative is good, how he embroiders it with words and music is brilliant – particularly the switching of moods between humour and pathos. This was apparent in Mrs Johnstone’s first Marilyn Monroe number: Maureen Nolan with both vocal tone and body movement portrayed how the trials and tribulations of seven children had changed her from being ‘sexier than Marilyn Monroe’ to a woman ‘twice her size’. These imageries were enhanced by the tempo of the ‘dancing’ refrain, evolving from lively to lethargic, resigned at only twenty-five to ‘No more dancing!’ Her superstitious trait surfaced with her ‘never put new shoes on the table’, a persuasion endorsed throughout the show by the Narrator (Kristofer Harding). His bogey list included spilt salt, a cracked mirror, a full moon, killing a spider and a single magpie. After the seed of an idea of giving one of her expectant twins to the better-off Mrs Lyons (Kate Jarman) had been planted, the dreams of both women seemed conceivable in their attractive harmonious duet My Child. Mrs Johnstone believed that at least one of her twins would thus have the ultimate luxury of ‘a bike with two wheels on’. The set designs of Andy Walmsley gave clear indications of Russell’s Merseyside city ‘with a cathedral to spare’, underlined by the ‘EVERTON’ graffitied on the back wall (echoing the other love of Bill Kenwright). However I would have welcomed a more guttural twang to the Liverpuddlian accents of both Nolan and Harding. I also wondered if Harding might have been given a bit more reverberation, to set him aside from the active protagonists.
As the bailiffs moved in we got a glimpse of the ‘catalogue mentality’ to the soulful strains of Easy Terms, emotionally rendered by Nolan – a mature product now when contrasted against her early girl-band days of the 1980s as one of the Nolan Sisters. Sean Jones held centre-stage as Mickey and promptly got a slap on the leg for his antics. Despite a heavy frame he was a credible seven-year-old, or, as he corrected his mother, ‘nearly eight’ longing to be big enough to wee through next door’s letter-box like his big brother Sammy. By chance, or perhaps fate, Mickey meets his twin Eddie (Joel Benedict) both typically quirky boys, yet oceans apart, raising the old chestnut of nature versus nurture. Benedict was making his professional debut and cut the character in Russell’s book perfectly. When the suitably loutish Daniel Taylor as Sammy joined them, Eddie’s surreptitious search for the plate in his head was as amusing as always. Their bond was formed and Eddie got his first lesson in swearing; trying out the ‘F’ word on his mother later was lapped up by the audience. The Kid’s Game that followed was innocent enough, but two storylines were developed: neighbour Linda’s adulation of Mickey and the issue of gangland culture.
As Mickey, Eddie and Linda (Danielle Corlass) became inseparable, the trio get into scrapes, and as this hardens the Lyons resolve to up sticks. The preview to Bright New Day saw the compassionate side of Nolan, movingly consoling first Mickey (see photo) and then Eddie. The farewell to her adopted son was sealed with the gift of a locket holding a picture of herself and baby Mickey. When she held Eddie for the first time since birth, Nolan warmly beamed when Eddie described his best friend’s Mum as ‘smashing’. The poignancy continued over into Long Sunday Afternoon/My Friend as Mickey and Eddie parted to some atmospheric music and memorable lyrics such as ‘untidy, from Monday to Friday’. Having been rehoused to Skelmersdale (the Milton Keynes of the North) where the ‘washing stays clean on the line’, the ever optimistic Mrs Johnstone led the energetic cast into a rousing Bright New Day.
As Mickey reached fourteen, Sammy’s bad influence was beginning to make its mark. Nolan spelt it out in her reprise of Marilyn Monroe, including how it was ‘easily done’ that Sammy had burnt down his school. It was revealing to see how this and other scenes had become racier over the years; for instance the cameo scene involving the judge at Sammy’s hearing. The contrast between the two schools of the twins also came across: with Mickey there was an element of truth in his remark to his teacher that knowing what ‘some sodding pygmies in Africa have for their dinner’ will not help him get a job. Eddie’s master at his boarding school wore a gown but after refusing to forfeit his treasured locket, his foul-mouthed remark regarding ‘a rolling doughnut’ gets him suspended. Finding out about the locket brings back Mrs Lyons’ earlier depression. Linda’s designs on Mickey blossom and they leave their council estate for a country walk. Now with legs up to her armpits, Corlass says ‘We’re 14!’ but Jones is still an awkward teenager.
Our twins meet up again and in That Guy, Eddie passes on what his literature lessons have taught him about chat-up lines. As always, Mrs Johnstone is understanding about their adolescence and Nolan’s engagement with the twins before they go to see their first X-rated film was charming. Not so Mrs Lyons when the two mothers confronted one another, but I found the attempted stabbing a little less than convincing. The plot is all downhill from here on, worthy of Shakespearean tragicomedy. Jennifer’s tumble from their struggle, symbolical of her fall into madness, was accompanied by some psychedelic sounds, skilfully engineered by Dan Samson. Emerging from their ‘remarkable celluloid experience’ the twins meet Linda and friend. They visit the fun fair and the legendary Tell me it’s not true theme was heard for the first time, but to a hurdy-gurdy sound and a merry-go-round beat.
The Narrator took us quickly through the mid-teen years: sweet sixteen; taking ‘just another ferry boat at seventeen (a great shot of New Brighton Tower); if only the idyllic life of this threesome could stay at eighteen. With Eddie destined for Uni, he bumps into Linda, launching Benedict into his big number I’m not saying a word, a vocal test he passed with distinction. With a touch of Sidney Carton he persuades Mickey to talk to Linda; despite the humorous delivery of Mickey’s clumsy lines (‘my loins long for you’) he gets through and they kiss. The sound of wedding bells are interrupted by Just another sign of the times as Mickey is made redundant; the jauntiness of the tune seemed a political statement by Russell, echoing the indifferent attitude of the establishment to unemployment. As things turn sour, Eddie’s attempts to party with Mickey when he comes home for the Christmas vacation end in rejection.
Mickey gets dragged into a ‘job’ by a tooled-up Sammy; it goes wrong, he goes to prison and it is his turn to be clinically depressed. He gets out but there is ‘no more dancing’ with Linda, addiction to his medication takes over, as told in more Marilyn Monroe (the interweaving of the Monroe thread is pure genius on the part of Russell). The change in Jones was outstanding – his body language and sand-paper voice conveyed his disturbed mental state very well. As for Linda ‘there’s a girl inside the woman’; she rings Eddie. Mickey hears they have met and fears it is not just a Light Romance as Nolan sang. Catching up with Eddie, the police are called, Mrs Johnstone and Linda arrive too. Mickey has a gun and in desperation the mother reveals that they are truly blood brothers, twins. The police interpret Mickey’s waving of the weapon as murderous intent and gun him down; his reaction shot hits Eddie. Mrs Lyons’ prediction has come true as the brothers both fall to the ground, dead. Can blame be directed at any door? Class or superstition? Nolan caught the moment with her Tell me it’s not true, endorsed at full volume by the enthusiastic cast.
Of all the productions there have been since 1983, this one is yet another that lived up to expectation. It runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until the 25th Oct.