Nicki Colwell Evans as Mrs Johnstone. Pictures: Jack Merriman.

Blood Brothers

Birmingham Hippodrome


I have never seen a bad Blood Brothers but I am struggling to remember a better one than this – it is simply superb.

Everything works, music, lighting, acting, story all coming together beautifully to bring Willy Russell’s sad tale to life and perhaps the saddest thing of all is that it hardly shows its age, it could almost have been written yesterday, which is no criticism of the musical but a telling indictment on the world we live in.

Twins Mickey and Eddie were first separated in their black and white world of poverty and privilege 41 years ago, and little has changed since then except the gulf between the haves and have nots has grown even wider.

It’s not really a spoiler to say the twins end up dead, after all that is the opening scene as Mrs Johnstone weeps over the bodies of her two dead sons, the musical is not about the tragic end, it is about how we got there.

Mrs Johnstone, who it seems had little more than hope as a contraceptive, has been abandoned by her husband after starting her latest journey into unplanned motherhood, She already has enough children to rival the old woman in the shoe, seven so far, and lives hand to mouth with regular visits from the repo men.

When she is diagnosed as expecting twins her world is destined to descend into battles with abject poverty, social services and the distinct possibility of children taken into care.

Except she is a cleaner for Mrs Lyons at the posh end of town and Mrs Lyons is desperate for a child but can’t conceive, and, by chance her husband is working away from home for the exact same period as Mrs Johnstone’s pregnancy. A struggling mother who has no hope of coping with two more mouths to feed and a privileged wife who just wants a child . . . the die is cast.


Niki Colwell Evans (Mrs Johnstone) and Sean Jones (Mickey)

Niki Colwell Evans is a wonderful Mrs Johnstone. It was her first role in musicals back in 2019 and she has made the part her own, living every moment and you can feel the emotion and despair of a mother as her world falls apart.

It is perhaps personal to her. She has two sons of her own and came from a family of four, with little money, growing up on a council estate. She knows and understands Mrs Johnstone’s world and it shows in a quite stunning performance.

As for Mickey, Sean Jones probably gets Mickey’s post he has played him so many times. He first joined the show as an understudy back in 1999 and was offered the part of Mickey two years later and it is hard to remember a time without him – he is Mickey, with his imaginary horse, tent like jumper and declaration he is seven, but nearly eight.

It is a part of transitions, from seven nearly eight-year-old playing cowboys and Indians, to gauche teenager frightened of girls, to father and husband, unemployed and broke, mentally and financially, and finally as the shuffling, slow witted, drug fuelled ex-con barely able to function. Jones gives us the full range with wonderful clarity from laughing child to the shell of a defeated man.

Marilyn Monroe, from its opening number to final scene, is a running theme through Blood Brothers and Mickey provides an extra link. Monroe was addicted to prescription drugs and died of an overdose, Mickey might have avoided the overdose but his addiction to prescription drugs, given in lieu of treatment in prison, was as just as much the cause of his death.

The cast is almost like a school reunion, like a siren call pulling people back to the show, such as Joe Sleight, who is a lovely contrast to in yer face Mickey as the soft Eddie, the posh one, again having to be first the kid, the one who is not in hand me down clothes, then the public schoolboy, rich student and finally wealthy, privileged councillor.

While Eddie does nothing wrong, nothing ever goes wrong in his comfortable life, and while Mickey does little wrong in the world he was born into, little ever goes right, he even gets laid off from a low paid, dead end job. Living at polar opposites of society a childhood friendship, even with a blood brother like Eddie, becomes a distant memory of the past, another luxury he can't afford, replaced by the resentment, frustration and anger of a present where even hope has deserted him. 

lost jobs

Mickey leads a P45 chorus of redundant staff 

Linking Mickey and Eddie is Linda, three friends from childhood growing up together and Gemma Brodrick, another returnee, does a remarkable job, perhaps more difficult than for a man, in aging from a gawky seven or eight year old, to a short skirted, long legged teen with the hots for Mickey, to the careworn wife and mum, old before her time, trying to cope with a shell of a husband.

Eddie fell for her years ago and when she turns to him for comfort as her world falls apart the seeds of destruction are sown, with one of the best and most telling songs in the show, Light Romance.

When the by now paranoid and unhinged Mrs Lyons maliciously plants the picture of a love triangle in Mickey’s troubled mind, the demons take over and the train is picking up speed heading for the inevitable crash.

Sarah Jane Buckley, perhaps best known as Kathy Barnes in Hollyoaks, gives a wonderful performance once again as a confident, in charge and in control executive wife, slowly disintegrating into madness.

When the deed of separation was done Mrs Johnstone had the sadness and regrets of a mother, but then gets on with what little her life had to offer. Mrs Lyons had taken advantage of her cleaner and her superstitions but instead of a source of joy Eddie slowly became a source of anxiety, in her mind Mrs Johnstone and Mickey are a threat to what has become her own terrible secret.

The Narrator acts more as a Greek chorus, interpreting and commenting on what we see and Scott Anson, who first played the role back in 1999, drifts like a shadow, everyone’s conscience, through every scene, informative and at times sinister.

As everyone else slowly loses their mind through the evening our Sammy, starts that way, having been dropped on his head as a baby and having a metal plate inserted to protect his damaged brain. Timothy Lucas give Sammy a feel violence is just below the surface, adding a sinister element to proceedings – his violence is responsible for his brother’s spell in jail.

There is good support from Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons, Graeme Kinniburgh as the postman and bus conductor, Chloe Pole as Mickey’s sister Donna Marie and Miss Jones, Jess Smith as Linda’s friend Brenda, , and Alex Harland as policeman and teacher with Josh Capper and Danny Knott in other roles. And they are all cowboys and Indians when primary school is out.

The set from Andy Walmsley is a place we are used to visiting by now with added scenes dropping from the flies and Liverpool’s Liver building dominating the rear panorama while Nick Richings lighting, enhanced these days by the wonders of computers and LEDs, adds to the drama while down in the depths in the pit is the excellent six piece band under Matt Malone, because, after all the songs are a major part of the show.

Marilyn Monroe, Easy Terms, Bright New Day, Tell me it’s not True are songs a generation of theatre goers have grown up with, old friends.

There are some great musicals but few resonate with real life, and the lives of ordinary people, people we can probably recognise, like this.

The end brought tears and a standing ovation, which for once, in this new habit of giving every production one, was richly deserved. For fans of the show it is a delight, a real treat while for newcomers – they will be new fans.

Directed by Bob Tomson and the late Bill Kenwright, the brothers will be separated at birth and reunited at death to 04-05-24

Roger Clarke


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