Blood Brothers

Birmingham Hippodrome


This is probably the best production of Willy Russell’s wonderful musical I have seen, and I have seen a lot over the years.

Mrs Johnstone. Mickey and the rest have become old friends and it is always a pleasure to see them again but, if I am honest, the show was still good, often exceptionally so, but the spark had started to dim.

Not any more though. Theatre is a living thing, evolving all the time and with a spruced up set and a few subtle tweaks here and there Bill Kenwright has given the show a new energy - the spark is back and burning as bright as ever.

At the heart of it is Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone, on what is to be her farewell tour, a performance which merely serves to show what a legacy she will leave behind. It is not only her superb voice - her Tell Me It’s Not True will haunt you for days – but her acting and physical aging.

We open with her as the young, attractive Liverpool girl who “was sexier than Marilyn Monroe” according to her fella, a fella who walked out on her and their seven children when she was pregnant again.

We close with her as a tired, careworn and crushed woman, old long before her days, broken by poverty, regret and life itself – mourning two dead sons. It is a magnificent performance from beginning to end.

But that is to come . . . first, did you ever hear the story of the Johnstone twins?

Life was at last looking good, or at least less drowning in debt after Mrs Johnstone got a job as a cleaner at the posh end of town working for Mrs Lyons, a lovely performance – and voice – from Chloe Taylor.

Wealthy Mrs Lyons could have anything she wanted – except children. Debt-ridden Mrs Johnstone could have virtually nothing – except children. And, as her latest were going to be twins and she could hardly feed the seven she already had, plus social services were taking an interest, Mrs Lyons saw her chance and hatched her plot – Mrs Johnstone could keep one and give the other to her.

The die was cast, one twin, Eddie, is set for a life of privilege, the other, Mickey, is condemned to a life of poverty, struggle and despair.

blood brothers

Alexander Patmore, from Liverpool incidentally, is a wonderful Mickey growing from the scruffy seven-year-old, nearly eight, playing cowboys and Indians, through to his hormone swamped and zit flecked teen years, then finally adulthood and marriage to Linda, before the baby arrives of course – Linda, delightfully played by Danielle Corlass, is his childhood sweetheart, even if it did take most of his teens for him to find the courage to tell her.

 Mickey has a dull job, but it offers plenty of overtime and, happily married to Linda, life seems at least settled – but life at the bottom of society’s unequal pile is precarious at best, and always ready to strike where it hurts most.

Slowly the joy, enthusiasm, even life are squeezed out. The now jobless and penniless Mickey is jailed after a botched robbery by his psychotic brother Sammy, a fine performance from Daniel Taylor, by the way, where, clinically depressed, he is given drugs instead of treatment, returning home on release a broken, barely functioning addict.

His twin Eddie, meanwhile, lives a life of privilege, private boarding school, university, good job, local councillor, pillar of society.

Eddie is chalk to Mickey’s cheese but Joel Benedict, as Eddie and Patmore create a chemistry between the pair as they meet as children and become blood brothers. Despite being from different sides of the track, there is an affinity between them which works on stage beyond the script.

With one twin a success and the other a mess, both loving the same woman and goaded by malicious stirring by the increasingly mentally unstable Mrs Lyons, we head for a climax which, 36 years on, and seen many times, still has the power to shock. The final confrontation between first blood brothers and then, after being told they are real brothers, between twins is as powerful as anything in theatre, ending with the cry of despair in the final words from the broken  Mickey to his mother “Why couldn’t you have given me away?”

There is excellent support from an ensemble cast including Graham Martin as the world-weary policemen and teacher, Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons and Gemma Brodrick as Mickey’s sister Donna Marie and Mr Lyon’s secretary, Miss Jones, handing out redundancy notices until she gets one of her own.

Holding the whole show together is Robbie Scotcher as the Narrator, our guide and confidante, drifting from scene to scene in the shadows, at times sinister, at times the voice of conscience and reason, and a fine voice it is too.

Blood Brothers is not a musical in the conventional sense, it is more a drama with words, perhaps due to its origins as a play, and a school play at that, before Russell added a score and it opened at the Liverpool Playhouse.

The book would stand alone, but music adds to it, with the excellent six piece band under musical director Matt Malone setting scenes and creating atmosphere along with Nick Richings lighting on Andy Walmsley’s set - some nice saxophone playing from Richard Wimpenny on Long Sunday Afternoon by the way.

Songs include Marilyn Monroe and Easy Terms which are recurring themes through the show and the opening and closing number, the haunting, Tell Me it’s Not True, with the Narrator’s constant warning of Shoes Upon The Table and the power of superstation reminding us of the dark secret shared only by Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons.

Directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright have done a fine job in bringing a freshness and instilling new energy into what has become a favourite musical for many people and with performances like this it will be picking up new fans every night. To 12-10-19

Roger Clarke


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