Review – Blood Brothers

Jun 25 2013 | By More

★★★★☆   A triumphant tragedy

Edinburgh Playhouse Mon 24-Sat 29 June 2013
Review by Martin Gray

So did you hear the story of the Johnstone twins? As like each other as two new pins …

If not, it’s likely you have at least heard of the story, as Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is nearly 30 years old – and on its umpteemth visit to Auld Reekie. If not, it’s spoiling nothing to say it is about abandoned mum of many, Mrs Johnstone, who takes the heartbreaking decision to give up one of her newborn twins to her well-off employer, Mrs Lyons, because she simply can’t stretch her small wage any further.

Blood Brothers Production photograph.

Blood Brothers Production photograph.

It’s a story of class, as separated brothers Mickey and Edward meet and become friends – blood brothers, even – without knowing what they really are to one another.

It’s also a tale of Fate, insisting that Mrs Johnstone’s decision makes an unhappy ending inevitable, even though she made it for the best of reasons.

That Fate is embodied in the Narrator, who stalks the stage, introducing characters and situations. He is a bogeyman in black overseeing the drama, and occasionally appearing on its fringes. The audience is left in no doubt that this is a tragedy – the end point is in the opening scene – but as the action is played out, it’s easy to hope that Russell is only kidding, that the ending will somehow not be as it seemed…

The standing joke when a new tour of Blood Brothers is announced is, ‘Which Nolan Sister this time?’. The 70s songbirds have cornered the market when it comes to playing Mrs Johnstone. Bernie, Linda, Denise and Maureen have all played the part – they’re actually in Guinness World Records for ‘most siblings playing the same role at different times in a professional production’.

I’m uncertain how many Nolans I’ve seen now – probably all of them and a few second cousins – but I’ve no complaints. They are the real deal: vocal powerhouses, channelling the emotion of the piece and transforming it into electricity.

Totally focussed in the darker moments…

This time it’s Maureen Nolan and she’s superb from the off, switching from devastated middle-aged mother to high-spirited young mum in an instant, the heart of the tale. While totally focussed in the darker moments, she lets herself have a bit of fun earlier on, and the audience loves her for it.

Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone & Sean Jones as Mickey. Production Photo.

Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone & Sean Jones as Mickey. Production Photo.

Tracy Spencer is utterly believable as the brittle Mrs Lyons, who manipulates Mrs Johnstone’s superstitious nature to keep her away from ‘her’ son, Edward, for fear he’ll learn the truth. She has a wonderfully pitched, melodic voice, demonstrated in her duet with Nolan, My Child.

Mark Hutchinson’s Eddie is an adorable puppy-man, loyal and caring but lacking in insight. And his solo number, I’m Not Saying a Word is delivered with real vulnerabilty.

Russell’s book gives Mickey the most challenging journey, from lively kid to awkward teen to broken man. Sean Jones attacks the material with brio, embracing the required changes in body language, demeanour and voice, making Mickey seem very real. Long Sunday Afternoon sees him show off his lovely pipes, while I Wish I Was Our Sammy lets him express his musicality via another route, as Russell gifts Mickey not a song, but a poem; Jones sits on the edge of the stage, legs dangling, inviting the audience into his world.

The Narrator has an awful lot of verse speaking, being the Liverpudlian version of a Greek Chorus, and Warwick Evans pulls it off. He serves well as the Voice of Doom, daring anyone to giggle at the neverending portentousness of it all. And happily, the rich-voiced Evans also get to sing lots, really letting fly on The Devil’s Got Your Number.

Linda, the girl both brothers love, doesn’t get a number to herself, but Olivia Sloyan still shines, whether she’s called on to be teenage minx or embattled partner.

Graham Martin plays several parts, with one bit of business – which there is no need to spoil for anyone thinking of seeing Blood Brothers for the first time – getting perhaps the biggest laugh of the night. It’s written by Russell, of course, but takes real talent to pull off.

The rest of the 14-strong cast serve the show similarly well, diving in and out of Andy Walmsley’s effective sets, moving props on and off, impressing with quick changes and enriching the vocals. And they nail the two big ensemble numbers, the cute Kids’ Game and jolly sad (literally) Miss Jones.

Musical Supervisor Rod Edwards looks to be having a whale of a time and this manifests in the music – meaty, confident renditions of Russell’s score. Mark Howett’s lighting design seems a tad more intense than in previous productions, though it only approaches hysterical once or twice, and then it works.

This is a seriously strong production from director Bill Kenright, with its multiple encores and standing ovation well-deserved. If you haven’t heard the story of the Johnston twins, now’s the time. But take tissues.

Run ends Saturday
Running time 2 hrs 45 mins
Tickets from:
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA. Mon-Sat 7.30pm, (Wed & Sat mat 2.30pm).

The OCR is available on Amazon. Click below for details:

Blood Brothers UK Tour: 2013/14
24 – 29 Jun 2013 Edinburgh
Edinburgh Playhouse
0131 524 3333 Book online
2 – 7 Sep 2013 Salford
The Lowry
0843 208 6000 Book online
9 – 14 Sep 2013 Oxford
New Theatre
0844 871 3020 Book online
16 – 21 Sep 2013 Llandudno
Venue Cymru
01492 872000 Book online
30 Sep – 5 Oct 2013 York
Grand Opera House
0844 871 3024 Book online
8 – 12 Oct 2013 Bromley
Churchill Theatre
08448 717 620 Book online
14 – 19 Oct 2013 Wimbledon
Wimbledon Theatre
0844 871 7646 Book online
21 – 26 Oct 2013 Blackpool
Opera House
01253 625252 Book online
28 Oct – 9 Nov 2013 Liverpool
Empire Theatre
0844 871 3017 Book online
11 – 16 Nov 2013 Billingham
Forum Theatre
01642 552 663 Book online
18 – 23 Nov 2013 Dartford
Orchard Theatre
01322 220000 Book online
25 – 30 Nov 2013 Torquay
Princess Theatre
0844 871 3023 Book online
13 – 25 Jan 2014 Malvern
Festival Theatre
01684 892 277 Book online
27 Jan – 8 Feb 2014 Coventry
Belgrade Theatre
024 7655 3055 Book online
24 Feb – 1 Mar 2014 Hull
New Theatre
01482 300 300 Book online


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  1. m carson says:

    was at show saturday afternoon it was wonderful this was number five i think this was best well done all best wishes moira