Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Blood Brothers – slick production of classic musical (Grand Opera House until Saturday 13 August)

The premise of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is straightforward. Poverty forces a working-class mother in Liverpool to separate her twin baby boys shortly after birth. A single parent with an existing brood of children, she can afford to keep one, while the other is reared by her rich childless employer. Mickey has a lot of love in his passed-down holey jumper. Edward has a privileged upbringing, but finds a soul mate – a blood brother – in the scruffy lad who lives nearby and shares his birthday. As they grow up, the pair also attract local girl Linda.

“Living on the never never / Constant as the changing weather / Never sure / Who's at the door / Or the price I'll have to pay”

Blood Brothers is frequently described as a story of nature versus nurture. But it’s also about class and privilege, housing, worklessness, mental health, and whether you have the opportunity to make good choices. The UK is sliding towards a recession. Families like Edward’s will cut their cloth according to their diminished cash flow, at the expense of workers like Mickey who will be caught in a spiralling trap of unemployment and rising living costs. Songs like Easy Terms and Miss Jones feel very contemporary. Blood Brothers may be set between the 1960s and the 1980s, but a lot of its underlying issues are still pertinent in 2022.

Mickey’s Mum, Mrs Johnston, is brought to life by Niki Evans. She’s the strongest performer in the 14-strong current touring cast, with Evans throws her soul into her songs. Her much-revisited Marilyn Monroe number grows in terms of its poignancy and complexity each time it is reprised.

The initial mix of mostly serious yet partly comedy awkwardly flips in a moment of tonal dissonance when the young boys come onto the stage and turn up the laughter. Sean Jones and Jay Worley play Mickey and Eddie between the ages of 7 and 25. Initially, each man child is somewhat farcical with the gait of an infant. But soon the age discrepancy is no longer noticed as they mess around and get in and out of scrapes.

Still running nearly 40 years after its first performance, Blood Brothers is a product of its time and its setting in the early 1960s to mid 1980s. While three of the leads are women, the other two female roles are ancillary. The story is narrated by a man, framing the masculinity of the tale. The police are men. There’s an assumption that the unsexed baby will be a boy. It’s not entirely clear whether Mickey’s anti-depressant prescription is about the prison authorities making him docile or is genuinely treating his poor mental health. But what is certain is that his family’s insistence that he comes off the tablets cold turkey would today be seen as poor advice and muddies the sense of who is in the right and who is in the wrong in the later sections of the second act.

While love interest Linda doesn’t have a particularly rich characterisation in the musical’s book, Carly Burns works with what’s there to create a believable bond between her and the young lads. The narrator lurks in the background of many scenes, before coming centre stage to repeat warnings about the dangers facing the separated twins. Richard Munday doesn’t quite deliver the necessary sense of menace or vocal presence to give the role the full impact and significance to the storytelling.

Full credit to the tour’s production team: Blood Brothers is one of the few touring productions at the Grand Opera House this year with no noticeable technical snags on its opening night. The sound mix is particularly well balanced between the live band in the pit and the cast on stage. While the emotional heft and magic that the musical’s cult following so appreciate largely passed me by, it’s a quality show that had the audience quickly up on their feet at the end.

Blood Brothers is performing eight times a week for the next fortnight in Belfast’s Grand Opera House with the last show on Saturday 13 August.

Production shots (before some recent cast changes) by Jack Merriman

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