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THEATRE REVIEW: Blood Brothers/Liverpool Empire

Ian Moore finds there are still plenty of brilliant moments in Willy Russll's gracefully ageing melodrama

Published on April 15th 2010.


THEATRE REVIEW: Blood Brothers/Liverpool Empire

WHAT CAN be added to the many comments, reviews and critiques of a production which began as a school’s touring show by Merseyside Young People’s Theatre Company?

With her strong voice, Lyn Paul can sing in a whisper and the audience hangs on every word. As the final tragedy unfolds, her resilience finally broken, she delivers the famous closing song "Tell Me It's Not True" with raw, heart-rending intensity.

On the face of it, Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, which opened at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre prior to a tour which takes in Bristol, Wolverhampton, Buxton, among others, shouldn't work. A contemporary prince-and-pauper tragedy, over-long by about 20 minutes, there are two decent songs and half a dozen not-so-memorable numbers; no dancing, grown actors playing children, portents of doom, rhyming verse monologues and sufficient tear-jerking moments to keep Kleenex in business well into the next century.

The production however, like a good wine, is ageing gracefully. A brilliant melodrama. Indeed it owes less to the modern British musical than to Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors or Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers. But it is melodrama done with such power, such intense belief in itself and, such a wealth of music that it carries you along with it in almost unreserved enjoyment.

Judging from the damp hankie count in the audience by the final curtain, the show still stands up.

However, new audiences, and I count myself as one of their number, cannot revel in departed cast members such as Carole King, Barbara Dickson, Petula Clark (as Mrs Johnstone) or George Costigan, David Cassidy, Con O'Neill (as one of the twins), the McGann brothers or Andrew Schofield, or John Conteh as the Narrator, all of whose vivid performances have established Blood Brothers firmly in modern theatre history.

There are blemishes - even after 25 years and a plethora of awards including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1983 and sell-out runs in the West End and on Broadway.

But they are outshone by a number of consolations, not the least of whom is Lyn Paul who offers thrilling vocal form as a working-class mother who gives away one of her twin baby sons to a wealthy housewife out of economic necessity. Paul’s musical experience has, like the production, spanned the decades and it shows. Her singing voice is flawless, her dramatic range may be somewhat limited, but she throws herself body and soul into the part with ultimately affecting results.

On a versatile set, two rows of terraced houses and a skyline dominated by the famous Liver Buildings, the whole cast sing and act with tremendous gusto. At the centre of the drama is the gentle, stoical Mrs. Johnstone (Paul). She is no downtrodden martyr, but a proud woman who wants nothing more than a few bob in her purse and a decent roof over her children's head.

With her strong voice, she can sing in a whisper and the audience hangs on every word. As the final tragedy unfolds, her resilience finally broken, she delivers the famous closing song "Tell Me It's Not True" with raw, heart-rending intensity.

But there is also good work from the ensemble cast, including Robbie Scotcher as the haunting ever-present ‘Everyman’ and Sean Jones as the under-achieving Mickey.

The casting of Jones opposite Paul Davies (as Eddie) as the Brothers Johnstone garners mixed rewards. If Davies is no great shakes as a youngster, he grows in credibility as the privileged brother ages.

Jones, by contrast, is a revelation as the poor-but-plucky Mickey, navigating the path from exuberant youth to depressed adulthood with a depth of feeling we never knew he had in him.

Observed by Scotcher’s sinister narrator, the two boys progress from seven-year-olds to teenagers wrestling with acne and adolescence. Mickey, the cheeky scouse scally, and Eddie, the well-spoken public schoolboy, bring to life scenes of exuberance, along with their friend Linda, (a sweet and touching performance from Kelly-Anne Gower) which crackle with comic energy.

Russell's Blood Brothers is as near to legendary as a piece of contemporary theatre can get. This latest production is, I am told, little changed from previous incarnations and is presented by a cast who clearly have an enormous passion for their work.

The blemishes? At almost three hours in length the piece could do with a little nip and tuck, though having said that the denouement is ‘Shakespeare-like’ in its speed, able to wrap up all of the loose ends within a matter of minutes. Two hours twenty-five minutes' build up towards a hasty conclusion which could do with a little attention directorially as it lacks clarity and gives an otherwise faultless show a real stodgy transition into the heart-rending, hanky grabbing climax.

Willy Russell is a playwright who divides opinion. For many he's one of Britain's leading lights; for others he's a peddler of one-themed sentimentalism. But above everything he is a shrewd observer of working class foibles with a genius for dialogue that can move audiences to laughter and tears. Go see this and see for yourself.

8/10

*Blood Brothers runs at the Liverpool Empire until April 24.

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Peter Coyle

i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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Couldn't agree more. This is a super piece. Ken would be proud that not a penny of public money was…

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