Book, Song & Lyrics by Willy Russel
Directed by Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright
Legendary – Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers, beloved across the country, draws the ancient philosophical narrative of nurture versus nature into the contemporary world. Downtrodden and faced with no alternative, Mrs Johnstone is scarcely able to feed her existing children – and upon discovering she is due to have twins, accepts an offer of parting with one. Mickey and Edward, separated at birth, are drawn to one another. Through childhood, they encounter similar events but in different households. Gradually, the truth unveils, and envy seeds itself in the hearts of one, the inevitability of suffering and what Mrs Johnstone feared becomes a reality.
Russel’s story not only analyses the disparities in the British class system but more than this, it weaves the tribulations of the advantages others have and how they respond to them. There’s a reason for over ten thousand performances, and there’s a reason for the standing ovations. From the musical prestige to the humour, Blood Brothers is an authentic musical which touches people in a way few others manage.
There’s a clear divide between the two acts and indeed between the characters. Whereas the boys and their respective mothers capture a more grounded authenticity, other casts members bring a necessary (though at times immersion halting) joviality and cheeky charm to the otherwise grim narrative. Daniel Taylor and Matt Slack carry needed energy across the various numbers, while Danielle Corlas as the twin’s childhood friend Linda, takes a little more time to find a place within herself – bright and engaging, Corlas takes a touch more time for the audience to connect.
But what of the twins? Alexander Patmore and Joel Benedict feel like buddies, not only with one another but the audience at large. If you’ve grown up on an estate, you’re familiar with these lads; from childhood to adolescence, the pair are convincing in their development through to adulthood. Forcing the hand of destiny is impossible, Blood Brothers finds finality in the inevitable – no matter how we push against the tide. For any who have seen the production before, the agony and anxiety hit as hard as ever, willing an alteration, but conceding defeat eventually as Patmore and Benedict deliver touching performances.
A challenge to get through, Tell Me It’s Not True is the unquestionable reason behind much of the production’s history of standing ovations. Stepping down from the role this week due to personal reasons, Lynn Paul succeeds the role of Mrs Johnstone to Amy Robbins. But as a veteran performer of the piece, Robbins is no stranger to the magnitude within the song. The outpouring of pain is wrenching, cast against Nick Riching’s complimenting light design. The precision and control in communicating emotion are breath-taking – and deserving of every minute of that ovation.
On the reverse of adoration, the thankless role of Mrs Lyons is a difficult one to draw audience reception from due to the writing. Mercifully, Paula Teppenden carries an uncomfortable accuracy in the gradual breakdown, grounding the character in realism against the more stock-caricatures surrounding her. Aiding in the narrative, Narrator Robbie Scother oversees the action unfolding, knowing precisely where the story is heading – haunting the pair of mothers as a permanent shadow, overcasting the emotions onstage.
The narrative, heart and agony of Blood Brothers pangs as deep as ever. The constrictions of lowered benefits and freedoms for working-class and low-income families across the UK is devastating, and though the style may be different – 2021 seems to share more similarities with the sixties than before. Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright’s direction and continued support of the production earns the show’s validity in prestige, with its thematic struggles of consequence, earthy numbers and continuing appeal and design, Blood Brothers is the people’s musical.
Blood Brothers runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until October 16th, then continues on tour. Tickets can be booked here.