Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 5 to Sat 10 March) as part of the show’s 30th anniversary tour, and if you get the chance, try not to miss this one as it is one of the great stories of modern musical theatre, and the role of Mrs Johnstone is one of the great roles in musical theatre (well any genre of theatre). Once again, as in the 2016 production that I reviewed last time the show was in Edinburgh, Lyn Paul is simply outstanding in this role and has truly made her Mrs Johnstone one of the great portrayals of this character.
Over the 30 years since this version was originally performed (an earlier one originally premiering at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983) there have been 1000s of productions take to the stage, and many of them are now forgotten. Blood Brothers however has become a global phenomenon and remained at the Phoenix Theatre for an impressive 24 years alone. Why? The answer is simple, it is a great story with wonderful songs and some of the very best artists in musical theatre have given iconic performances in its productions over the years
Possibly part of the enduring success of Blood Brothers is that there is an almost Shakespearean tragedy underneath the songs; a poor mother at financial breaking point already with the number of children that she has to feed is forced into giving away one her newborn twins to a far wealthier woman who can have no children, in the hope that one of them at least will have a better start in life and better chances. The inclusion of old superstitions of twins parted adds to the feel of a far older tragedy unfolding onstage. Giving the final touch to this theme is Mathew Craig, our excellent narrator tonight who tells the linking passages to our story in rhyming couplets.
With the dice now already rolling for a final resolution, our two twins, Mickey (Sean Jones) and Eddie (Mark Hutchinson) lead at first completely separate lives that become increasingly intertwined by the fates. Each of course is unaware that they are far more than just childish “Blood Brothers”. Both Sean Jones and Mark Hutchinson are very good in their roles here, but it is always Mickey who has the most developed character to explore, and Sean Jones is outstanding in this part as we watch him somehow age from the little boy of 7 years old but nearly 8 to the prescription drug dependant adult coming out of prison. As mother and son, Lyn Paul and Sean Jones make a truly believable stage partnership, and that final touching moment where a grieving mother tucks her twins in for one last time is a classic piece of theatre. Adding an interesting element always to Mickey’s character is his slightly older and far wilder brother Sammy, and Daniel Taylor plays this role with some nice touches.
Giving some real life to the role of childhood friend of our “Blood Brothers” is Danielle Corlass as Linda, and as they grow up, a classic love triangle develops. Linda has only ever really had her heart set on Mickey though and Danielle brings some genuinely tender moments to this role in her later years as her dreams of marriage and a life with Mickey slowly turn into a cycle of poverty and hopelessness as she tries in vain to deal with the changes that have happened in her life. There is a sad social commentary here of just how quickly young girls’ lives could change in this environment as their daily existence quickly aged them and took away their dreams.
Mrs Lyons (Eddies “mother”) is one of the more interesting roles in this story, and there is always a knife edge balance to her sanity. Sarah Jane Buckley is very good here as Mrs Lyons and there are some wonderfully powerful moments with her on stage.
Blood Brothers has some of the best songs of any stage musical and the lyrics tell some powerful and heart-breaking stories - "Marilyn Monroe", "Easy Terms" and "Bright New Day" being just a few of them.
As a show, Blood Brothers has so many layers to it and you could spend a long time analysing the social commentary in it or the nature versus nurture theme of our twins, but what really makes this show is that audiences worldwide identify with Mrs Johnstone and her family. Unlike many other productions on stage, we have characters in Blood Brothers that we care about, and when Mrs Johnstone is performed by someone like Lyn Paul with the skills to bring all the tenderness and love for her family out plus somehow the inner strength needed to survive the conditions of her life, something magical happens on stage. Lyn Paul brought a little piece of theatrical magic to her role in this performance.
Review by Tom King