I have a confession to make: until last night, I’d never seen Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. Unlike the lady in the loo who announced that this was her ninth time.
So what is it that keeps audiences coming back to see a musical that was first performed at Fazakerley Comp in 1981?
It’s the early 60s and two women are living their lives in ironic opposition: Mrs Johnstone is financially impoverished yet over-blessed in the fertility department, with seven children and counting; her counterpart Mrs Lyons is well-off but barren.
When Mrs Johnstone’s husband leaves her for a younger, fitter model (although we’re told that Mrs. J is only 25 – middle age came early in the Sixties apparently,) she discovers that her latest pregnancy is twins. She despairs of how she’ll feed the extra mouths.
The woman she cleans for, the childless Mrs Lyons, has a suggestion… Separated at birth, the twins, Mickey and Eddie, nevertheless are drawn to each other like magnets and by nearly eight years old are firm friends, in fact, blood brothers. Little do they know that, despite their very different circumstances, the same blood courses through their veins.
The opening scene depicts the tragic outcome of this social experiment, with the bodies of both brothers dead on stage so we know that all doesn’t end well.
In case you miss the moral undertones, there’s a narrator, Scott Anson, who acts as both Greek chorus, filling in the narrative gaps, and as some kind of personification of the devil to whom both women have sold their souls.
Lest the contemporary nature/nurture morality tale fails to sock you in the eye, the narrator punches it home with the pronouncement that the families are victims of “what the English call class.” On top of this we have Marilyn Monroe as a recurrent motif, a symbol of sad decline and early demise if ever there was one.
So far so obvious, yet what elevates this above sentimental shmaltz is the writing. You are aware of your heartstrings being pulled but you don’t mind because Russell, erstwhile hairdresser who tuned his ear to the cadences and concerns of the humble scousewife whilst bouffing her barnet, has a knack for authentic dialogue.
The pathos is punctuated with the kind of laugh-out-loud one-liners that are familiar to all locals. It’s part love-song to Liverpool, part damning social commentary. We chart the course of a couple of decades, through the Sixties slums to relocation in Skem, up to the recession in the Eighties. Staged on Merseyside, it’s like Liverpool FC playing at home: there’ll always be an audience.
The other thing of course that elevates this show are the extraordinary performers. Niki Colwell Evans as Mrs Johnstone is a tour de force, capturing a character that is at once strong and vulnerable, funny and tragic. And, my, what a voice! Sarah Jane Buckley as her foil, the privileged Mrs Lyons whose own deception causes her to unravel into madness, blends her voice nicely with Evans.
Initially, I struggled with gnarly adults playing primary school age children (after all, Sean Jones is now in his 50s) but they won me over. Having played the part of Mickey for more than 20 years, Jones has honed an exceptional physical performance, inhabiting the body of Mickey through the childhood years of riding an imaginary Tonto, to that of a depressed ex-con with an addiction to prescribed drugs, via an awkward teenager.
His signature childhood move of mounting and dismounting his invisible steed is so fluid and seamless that it’s hard not to imagine Jones cantering around the Asda on his weekly shop through sheer force of habit.
I also liked Timothy Lucas’ bad seed portrayal of Mickey’s big brother Sammy, and Gemma Brodrick shone as old friend and love interest Linda.
The music, scored by Russell himself, is of its time, hence a certain amount of Eighties synth-pop and soaring sax. But it’s the only thing that feels a little dated in a play that is as affecting today as it was 40 years ago.
And, despite knowing from the start how it ends, I defy anyone not to tear up at the conclusion. The lady in the loo was sobbing.
Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton, until Saturday, 10 February.