The latest incarnation of Willie Russell’s perennially popular musical, ‘Blood Brothers’ starts off strong, says Aidan Quigley, but does the rest of the show come up to the high bar it sets for itself?
Willie Russell’s musical, Blood Brothers, with its story of a struggling mother and her separated twins, began its life 34 years ago on London’s West End, and since then has enjoyed numerous productions, translations and tours, so it’s safe to say there’s something about its chemistry, a mix of melodrama, song and nostalgia that’s right on the button.
I have to admit it, though, that before attending the latest incarnation of Blood Brothers at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (BGET) I was unfamiliar with this mammoth musical, and when the opening tableau began to assemble, with its chill-inducing music, I got excited about seeing something new.
Sadly, much like the slanted gradient of the stage, this version of Blood Brothers slowly moves downhill from there. It’s a tight production, the lines and songs are delivered adeptly by an able cast, the set-design is atmospheric, and scene transitions are smooth; however, the story itself is not as large in scale as the overture would indicate.
Rebecca Storm reprises the show’s central role for the umpteenth time on the Irish stage, as the extremely fertile Liverpudlian Mrs Johnstone (who looks like Marilyn Monroe, as Russell’s lyrics constantly remind us). Storm knows how to do her job and she carries the production’s emotional weight throughout. When we first meet her she’s struggling to feed a multitude of children with what she receives on the dole, and so takes up a job cleaning for Mrs Lyons, a woman who lives in a palatial house with her husband.
With seven children to feed already, when Mrs Johnstone is once again impregnated by her hapless husband (who then runs away with someone who looks more like Marilyn Monroe than she does), she worries about how she’ll feed another two mouths as their delivery day approaches. Mrs Lyons reveals she’s barren, and with her husband away on a very, very extended business trip, offers to take one of Mrs Johnstone’s twins off her hands and pass him off as her own natural born son.
And so, in the interests of good (and slightly incredulous) story, Mrs Johnstone’s twins, Mickey and Edward, are separated. The Narrator (Dean Chisnall), who appears on stage at portentous moments like this, sings one of the show’s recurring songs, ‘Shoes Upon The Table’. The lyrics highlight ominous superstitions, such as the spilling of salt, but fail to connect with the emotional gravity of the deal which has just been struck. Chisnall is one of the more powerful singers in the ensemble, with a razor-sharp quality to his voice and accent that ensures every word cuts through the orchestra.
Skip forward a few years and Mickey (Sean Jones) and Edward (Mark Hutchinson) are seven. They’re played by adult actors who do their very best to personify innocent and carefree children, and for the most part do it well, selling a kind of nostalgia for a simpler time in the collective audience’s lives.
Despite their mothers trying to keep them apart, Mickey and Edward become best friends, making a blood pact to become ‘blood brothers’ when they discover they were born on the same day. However, when Mrs Lyons discovers Edward has been hanging around with Mickey, she fears the truth will out and urges her husband to move their family the countryside, away from ‘bad influences’. In another incredibly coincidental turn of events, Mrs Johnstone gets rehoused in the country and Mickey and Edward are reunited.
Keep reading to find out about Act 2, the musical numbers and the final verdict.
Blood Brothers runs from Tuesday 28 March – Saturday 8 April. Tickets for Blood Brothers are available here from €20.
Act Two sees the children age from adolescence to adulthood, with Mickey and Linda (a childhood friend) developing feelings for one another, while Edward also develops feelings for her. As Mickey and Edward’s paths diverge – Edward goes to university, while Mickey is hired and made redundant from his box making job – the issue of class becomes increasingly apparent. The well-funded Edward thrives, whereas Mickey turns to crime to support himself and Linda, his soon-to-be wife.
In terms of musical numbers, the only ones that left a lasting impression on me were ‘Marilyn Monroe’, which recurs a handful of times throughout the show, and ‘The Devil’s Got Your Number’, sung by The Narrator. The others don’t resonate musically or lyrically, with songs like ‘Sign Of The Times’ (which is about unemployment during the Thatcher era) seeming out of place in the musical that’s otherwise focussed on family ties.
The show has some excellently executed jokes, which self-deferentially draw attention to the limits of a stage production. One such instance is when the actor who plays the milkman returns to play a gynaecologist. He says, “I’m a doctor now,” earning a good laugh.
Despite rare gems like this, the emotional impact of this show doesn’t fully hit home. The EastEnders-esque drum beat at the very end makes it seem like two hours have just been spent watching a epic-length episode of a soap opera with songs that mention Marily Monroe quite a lot, which essentially is what Blood Brothers is.
‘Blood Brothers’ runs from Tuesday 28 March – Saturday 8 April. Tickets for Blood Brothers are available here from €20
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