By Paul Crofts
Having had my first experience of musical theatre way back in 1980 (The King and I at the London Palladium starring Yul Brynner), I have been fortunate to see many many musicals in the intervening years. I am ashamed to say, however, that I hadn’t ever seen Blood Brothers, until now, that is.
You can imagine then how delighted I was to finally get to see the show without having to travel to Manchester, Liverpool or even London first. Another first for me was to get to see the main auditorium at Storyhouse transformed from the 500 seats of its opening season to the 800 seats of the current Autumn run of touring shows. The theatre’s designers have done a brilliant job in maximising the space to produce an experience that is intimate without feeling cramped.
The atrium of Storyhouse is packed with excitable schools groups when I arrive, (Blood Brothers is on the syllabus) but when seated in the auditorium, once the curtain rises, you can hear a pin drop.
Having clocked up 10,013 performances in the West End alone and with a cult following on Broadway, Blood Brothers has long been a perennial favourite since the first production back in 1983 and it’s not hard to see why.
With Lyn Paul (of New Seekers fame) reprising the iconic role of Mrs Johnstone, a part she has played off and on since 1997, the production is in safe hands. Blood Brothers is essentially a tale about class, the haves and have nots of this world. It’s the story of two brothers, separated at birth by a desperate mother struggling alone to make ends meet. Mrs Johnstone has given one of her twin boys away after making a deal with her employer, the wealthy but sadly childless Mrs Lyons (Hollyoaks star Sarah Jane Buckley) for whom she cleans. The story then follows the brothers, Mickey (Sean Jones) and Eddie (Mark Hutchinson) from the age of seven into adulthood and their tragic end.
The opening scene, set against a brilliant back drop of Liverpool’s iconic skyline and clever use of scenery, fast forwards the audience to the brothers’ demise, with the first few plaintive notes of the show’s best known song Tell Me It’s Not True played to eerie effect. The show’s narrator (played with dark brooding brilliance by Dean Chisnall) is never far away and acts as the central characters’ consciences and a sort of dark angel, watching over all and warning of the consequences of their actions throughout. Chisnall is given some stunning harmonies to sing, underpinning Lyn Paul’s powerful voice to great effect.
As the story unfolds, stand out scenes include the adult actors playing seven-year-olds, complete with holes in their jumpers, mucky faces and grazed knees. We are taken back to an era when kids played in the street for hours on end, pretending to be cowboys and indians (Mickey’s imaginary horse is a joy to behold!), whilst dodging Mickey’s older and more streetwise brother Sammy (Daniel Taylor) and trying to avoid a clip around the ear from the local bobby. It is here that the separated brothers meet by accident, each completely unaware of who the other really is, but they become best friends and Blood Brothers.
Without wishing to give too much away if, like me, you haven’t seen it before, as the story unfolds we see the boys as they navigate through their teenage years and into the harsh realities of adulthood, all of which leads us back to the opening scene. Willy Russell weaves the story around beautifully crafted songs with a script full of typical Scouse humour and social comment on the desperation of ordinary people trying to do nothing more than make a better life for themselves, leading up to the climactic final scene as Lyn Paul’s Mrs Johnstone delivers the show’s heartbreaking hit song Tell Me It’s Not True, leaving not a dry eye in the house and bringing the audience to its feet for a well deserved standing ovation and several curtain calls. Lyn Paul appears to be overwhelmed by the audience reaction as she leaves the stage.
All in all, the show is an absolute triumph and a must see. With its Autumn season well under way, Storyhouse has proved that it can more than hold its own against the more established venues of Liverpool and Manchester in attracting well known names and top flight productions. I look foward to the next chapter!
Blood Brothers runs at Storyhouse until Saturday 14 October. Tickets can be booked online at storyhouse.com