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Live / stage review

"Terrifically entertaining": Blood Brothers at the Lyceum

Willy Russell's Blood Brothers blends music, comedy, pathos and social commentary. How does the show hold up in 2023?

Two men are facing each other holding hands as if arm wrestling.

Sean Jones as Mickey and Joe Sleight as Eddie in Blood Brothers

Jack Merriman

Over the last 40 years, Blood Brothers has nuzzled its way into the hearts of theatre goers with its blend of music, comedy, pathos and social commentary.

The show tells the story of Mrs Johnstone, a single mother who is struggling to make ends meet. Finding herself pregnant with twins, she realises that she can only afford to keep one of the babies so enters a pact to give one of the children to a well-to-do neighbour, Mrs Lyons. Despite the best efforts of their respective mothers, the boys meet and become best friends, never knowing that they were twins secretly separated at birth.

But as they grow up, their friendship is tested as their lives take very different paths, leading to tragedy.

There is a reason why this play has been so enduring, and that is primarily down to the superb writing by Willy Russell.

The loud first act establishes the characters nicely and is very comedy orientated, although it can come across as a little bit too shouty and unnecessarily chaotic in its presentation at times. The characters are easy for the audience to form a bond with, despite some of their traits being a little clichéd. Mrs Johnstone is a warm and loving mother who takes life, and everything that it can throw at her, in her stride, whilst Mrs Lyons is cold, distant and drives herself over the edge with her paranoia and anxiety.

But it is in the second act where the writing really shines through. The story arcs of the characters are beautifully written, as their lives diverge and the gap between success and failure, and between poverty and affluence, widens. There is genuine drama unfolding on stage, which completely captured and held the audience’s attention, leading them to the highly charged ending that brings proceedings to a close by packing an emotional gut punch.

Comedy and musical numbers aside, the show is a biting social commentary on the issue of class, of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate and on the opportunities afforded or denied to families due to socio-economic circumstances.

In one scene, the two boys are taken to their respective homes by the police after throwing stones at a house, and Mrs Johnstone is threatened with court, removal of her children and a criminal record over “a very serious crime”. The same incident is relayed to Mrs Lyons as a minor mischief, with a ruffling of Eddie’s hair and a comment about what a good lad he is.

Two people dancing on a stage, mostly lit in blue and red.

Niki Colwell Evans, Mrs Johnstone and the Spring 2022 Cast in Blood Brothers

Jack Merriman

The impact of mental health is also featured as Micky’s life spirals downwards and Mrs Lyons becomes increasingly paranoid and anxious.

Russell’s script and story still resonates today, and at times is quite prophetic. During one song, Micky’s employment comes to an end “due to the world situation, the shrinking pound, the global slump and the price of oil”. As you sit in your theatre seat in 2023, you have to wonder how little things have changed since the show was written in 1983.

There are some very good performances in this production. Richard Munday impresses as the narrator, as does Paula Tappenden in her portrayal of Mrs Lyons and her character’s descent into madness. In an ensemble that was strong overall, there were standout performances from Niki Colwell Evans, who offered a warm portrayal of Mrs Johnstone, garnering a genuine empathy from the audience; and primarily from Sean Jones, who portrays the transition of Micky from giddy schoolboy to troubled young adult with ease, having made the role very much his own over the years.

On this tour, the production feels refreshed. The overuse of electric drums and echo microphones that has previously made the show feel dated seems to have been quelled (or at least was certainly less noticeable), though there are some aspects of the script that could be curtailed. The overuse of sexual language towards women in one scene sits uncomfortably and feels unnecessary in the post-#MeToo era, especially as it holds no relevance to the narrative.

However, Blood Brothers remains terrifically entertaining, and it is not difficult to see why this show remains as popular as it is. Having become affectionately known as “The Standing Ovation Musical”, Sheffield audiences were quick to uphold that tradition as they promptly leapt to their feet in thunderous applause as the curtain fell.

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