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Blood Brothers

Published by: Steve Burbridge on 7th Nov 2012 | View all blogs by Steve Burbridge

 

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Blood Brothers – Darlington Civic Theatre

It would be no exaggeration, on my part, to claim that I have now lost count of how many times I have seen Blood Brothers. Since first being introduced to the production at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End (which, incidentally, closes this weekend) in the mid-nineties, starring Siobhan McCarthy, I have seen the role of Mrs Johnstone performed by three of the Nolan sisters (Bernie, Linda and Maureen), Lyn Paul, Helen Hobson, Marti Webb and Niki Evans.

Such is the emotional impact of this fantastic piece of theatre that it has now established itself as a part of the cultural fabric of Britain, uniting theatre-goers from all walks of life in their enjoyment and admiration of this moving and compelling tale of twin brothers who, having been separated at birth, grow up on opposite sides of the social spectrum, only to meet again with tragic consequences.

The play centres around Mrs Johnstone, the single mother who struggles to cope with her seven unruly kids and the news that she is expecting twins. With ‘the welfare’ already looking over her shoulder, she desperately tries to hold things together but learns that ‘living on the never-never’ only makes things worse. Through a heady mix of religion, superstition and desperation, Mrs Johnstone is persuaded into giving one of her new-born sons to her infertile middle-class employer, Mrs Lyons and, in doing so, a chain of events is set in motion that will, inevitably, culminate in the heart-rending denouement, played out to the hauntingly beautiful and emotionally-charged Tell Me It’s Not True.

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Having starred in the West End and several touring productions of Blood Brothers, Niki Evans reprises the lead role of Mrs Johnstone. She looks perfect for the part and is vocally impressive, too. Her clear, strong voice is powerful without being harsh and travels throughout the auditorium, raising hairs on the backs of necks as it goes. She can convey any emotion with a look or a gesture and her Liverpudlian accent is faultless.

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The skilful and understated performance delivered by Evans is in stark contrast to that of her ‘leading man’.  Marti Pellow is billed as the ‘star’ of the show, which is something I disagree with, in principle, anyway. To me, Blood Brothers is the story of Mrs Johnstone – something which is supported by the lyric ‘and did you never hear of the mother so cruel, there’s a stone in place of her heart? Then bring her on and come judge for yourselves how she came to play this part’ – and the actress who plays her should be credited as the ‘star’.

 That said, Blood Brothers has often utilised ‘stunt casting’ as a way of appealing to audiences who may not ordinarily consider going to the theatre. Indeed, it is claimed that Willy Russell had specifically written the part of Mrs Johnstone for “a pop star who could sing wonderfully” and history demonstrates that this theory has been tried and tested many times, with successful, high-profile recording artistes such as Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee, Petula Clark, Helen Reddy, Carole King, Lyn Paul, the Nolan’s, Mel C and Natasha Hamilton donning the crossover pinny and care-worn smile to play her.

Similarly, the Narrator has been played by big ‘names’ including Carl Wayne, David Soul, John Conteh and even Willy Russell himself. So, perhaps, it is entirely understandable why former Wet Wet Wet frontman Marti Pellow would be cast in the role. After all, he has proven himself to be a competent musical theatre performer (having played leading roles in Chicago, The Witches of Eastwick and Jekyll & Hyde) who, by his own admission, prefers the darker roles. However, it appears that he has totally misinterpreted the part.
 
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Whereas other Narrators I have seen (including Craig Price, Robbie Scotcher, Keith Burns, Scott Anson and Mike Dyer) opt to perform the role as a sinister, spectral figure who skulks around the shadows of the stage, pondering the consequences of each and every decision Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons make, reminding them both that ‘the Devil’s got your number’, Pellow is far less subtle. He thrusts himself into the foreground, pulling focus relentlessly, and adopts the persona of some kind of psychotic, stalking menace, adding a number of profanities in places where there have previously been none. Instead of personifying the moral consciences of Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, he attempts to be the Devil made manifest. And his Liverpudlian accent was, at best, variable.

The absence of Sean Jones, as Mickey, left a void that fell to James Templeton to fill. Jones (who is currently part of the ‘dream-team’ ultimate cast, assembled to ensure the West End production ends in a blaze of glory) has, over a number of years, honed and developed his performance to a degree that he is now the quintessential Mickey to many of the shows aficionados. James Templeton is to be commended for his valiant effort and the odd fluffed line can easily be overlooked, yet his characterisation never quite exuded the emotional gravitas which Jones consistently delivers by the bucket load.

Still, the return of Daniel Taylor (who has recently been indisposed due to illness) was a very welcome one. Much like Sean Jones as Mickey, Taylor has made the role of bad-boy Sammy very much his own. Tracy Spencer, as Mrs Lyons, also perfectly depicts the manipulative, barren and selfish woman who puts her own wants and desires above everybody else’s – whatever the cost. The solid supporting cast includes Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons, Olivia Sloyan as Linda and Tori Hargreaves as Donna Marie.

Such is the sheer strength and popularity of Blood Brothers as a piece of theatre that it can withstand a minor distraction or two. It is a production that goes from strength to strength, its appeal growing over the years rather than diminishing; a powerful play that it can be watched time and time again without ever losing any of its emotional impact or social relevance.

Wherever it is performed, Blood Brothers receives a standing ovation from an approving audience and press night was no exception. This production is heart-warming, tear-jerking, uplifting, devastating and, above all else, brilliant!

Steve Burbridge.

Blood Brothers runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 10 November, 2012, before continuing to tour.

 

Comments

2 Comments

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 5 years ago
    Thanks, Steve. A show close to your heart, I know. Great review - plenty of passion!
  • Steve Burbridge
    by Steve Burbridge 5 years ago
    I think, perhaps, this was one of the most difficult reviews I have ever had to write! It was a challenge to reign in my absolute love of this show and balance it with an objective appraisal of the performance I watched. Although I have reviewed 'Blood Brothers' several times before, this time it seemed harder to do. Perhaps it has something to do with the sentiments associated with the West End production closing this weekend? Anyway, it ended up being something of an extended review (far longer than a normal length review) because I felt I had to establish the context in which each comment was being made. Thanks for your kind words, though, Cammy.
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