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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Low Down

Niki Colwell Evans now takes Mrs Johnstone. She zeroes her voice to live along the words, with a quick skirl, sometimes almost swallowing them. She can sing wonderfully but lets the line look after itself blazing raw truth. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before.

This reinvigorated classic has overwhelming impact: as story, as lyric fable, as terrible moral for these distracted times.

This revival of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, is co-directed by Bill Kenwright (with Ben Tomson) who also produces. It’s designed as before by Andy Walmsley. Matt Malone’s music direction and Dan Samson’s sound. Nick Richings’ lighting (Associate Designer Darran Curtis). Assstant Director Tim Churchill.

Musical Director/Keyboards a Matt Malone. Assistant MD/Keyboard 2 Henry Brennan, Guitars Ben Fletcher, Bass Glenn Muscroft, Drums Jo Hooper, Soprano & Alto Saxophone Richard Wimpenny

CSM Ian Slater, DSM Eleanor Chapman, ASM/Book Ellie Carney, Tech SM Sam Scott, Head of Wardrobe David Hoy, Sound No 1 Bo Collier, Sound No. 2 Alex Chadwick, Technical Swing Morgan Saunders, LX No 2 Benjamin Drury, LX No. 3 George Malin, LX Programmer Darran Curtis, Production carpenter Maitland Wakefield, Production Electrician Andrew Blumson, Production Sound Engineer Dave Preece

Till October 7th then touring


You’ll have seen it before. But this is different. With Lyn Paul’s retirement after a decade, this production shifts to something less sheerly beautiful but more starkly true, more visceral, devastating. With storytelling that nails its tenderness on tenement walls, memorable music and lyrics all by Willy Russell, is it any wonder?

Niki Colwell Evans now takes Mrs Johnstone. She zeroes her voice to live along the words, with a quick skirl, sometimes almost swallowing them. She can sing wonderfully but lets the line look after itself blazing raw truth with her acting. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before.

Bill Kenwright co-directs – with Ben Tomson – as well as produces this revival of Willy Russell’s 1983 perennial Blood Brothers, designed as before by Andy Walmsley; a simple set with green-door tenements in either side (latterly modernised), one with salubrious extensions and a backdrop shifting from wintry Merseyside lights to countryside. A gantry’s rarely used; there’s a few balcony takes to emphasize class.

Whereas Colwell Evans anchors with magnificence and throbbing tough-love compassion, the trio of younger actors growing-up is revelatory in its physical re-anactment of childhood, where the child who stayed, Mickey is placed through the most vibrant and harrowing of changes. Sean Jones’s winning, hapless madcap growing-up and shrivelling down vocally (high tenor to raspy bass) is done as never before with physical precision; from ebullience to shrunken drug-dependant hollowness, slowed down, ashen with premature age. Jones even enacts the pseudo-Parkinsons of anti-psychotic drugs.

Joe Sleight’s a superb light tenor as Eddie, precise, naïve, eager to love, enormously affecting. Gemma Brodrick’s Linda, makes a winning vocal and acting transition: from confident child to sexy, highly competent – and vulnerable – young woman.

Danny Whitehead’s ominous Narrator nudges the drama even further on. His lean delivery’s one-third-devil, one-third-enabler, one-third-conscience. Sarah Jane Buckley as Mrs Lyons now quivers with spite and foreboding.

The epilogue’s played out at the beginning; the fable of the Johnstone twins unfolds at a pace to partly banish, partly reinforce our sense of that massive reveal.

It’s the early 1950s. Mrs Johnstone – we never learn her first name – is courted (‘Dancing’) married, has seven children by a man who abandons her before her eighth and as it happens ninth child arrives. She can’t feed twins and the childless woman she cleans for, Buckley’s initially twittery well-to-do Mrs Lyons, offers her a way out: give one child to her, but makes Mrs Johnstone swear she’ll never reveal the truth. So Mr Lyons away for nine months will think it’s theirs.

So twins are sundered, and when Mrs Lyons meanly cuts out Mrs Johnstone from any contact, the twins’ separation and fateful reunion, their amity and growing apart, plays out against starkly different class aspirations. And centred on the same girl, Linda.

This ‘folk opera’ is Brechtian by way of Stratford East and Joan Littlewood, with Russell’s memorable lyrics married to indelible melodies (often same but varied): the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ refrain which might seem strained as a catch-all but mostly twists to ends you’d never expect, including medication. Duets like ‘My Child’ where real and faux mothers sing different feelings; the bittersweet realism of ‘Easy Terms’ taking on meanings as Colwell Evans commands with heft and delicacy – as bailiffs repossess every stitch of Hire-Purchase furniture.

Then there’s supernatural. A sinister Narrator, Whitehead’s smoky localism dogs the protagonists’ shadows, with regret (if the fateful trio could just stay eighteen) and a whiff of brimstone as he keeps intoning the devil with ‘Shoes Upon the Table’ to minor chord disruptions. His voice cuts through smokiness, edging to Mephistopholean as he reminds each character there’s an account to pay after swearing oaths and curses.

The baleful influence of Mickey’s gun-happy workshy elder brother Sammy (Timothy Lucas’s rangy menace wholly convinces, he bops anger) pushes Jones’s Mickey further away from a chance of squaring with life. But more decisive is what life, employment and no opportunity, do to him. It corrodes his relationship with ‘blood brother’ Eddie, and new wife Linda.

Sleight’s Eddie can seem childlike yet transforms cut-glass-class to well-intentioned flop-haired councillor. Like Jones and Brodrick, his growing-up is (with Colwell Evans) the great acting of the night, his fateful attraction to Linda something that shows his true worth (he cares nothing for snobby uni friends) and fragility. Songs he shares with Jones, ‘Long Sunday Afternoon’ and later ‘That Guy’ are winningly matched.

Brodrick too shares in this growing and her vocal transformation is matched by an ardent high soprano that nails strength and vulnerability, worn down even beyond her quiet heroism. From the girl who always strikes her target, to one who fatefully strikes two, it’s her tragedy too.

Buckley’s Mrs Lyons as thankless near-villain duets with Colwell Evans with a rich harmony between them; her neurotic terrified meanness is explained at least. Mrs Lyons’ identity is bound by a secret. Buckley shows Lyons falling apart slowly as crumpled paranoia and guilt-steeped slashes of anger seamlessly erupt from her.

Parts are as well-etched as you’d expect. Tim Churchill returns as bland paternalist Mr Lyons. Churchill’s unctuousness suggests a platonic pipe-clamping moment. Seasoned, he’s also long been entrusted with being assistant director on the tour. Tori Hargreaves whether pregnant older sister or the Mrs Jones ordered to fire everyone and fired herself has a strong lyric moment; or Nick Wilkes’s authority-roles as teacher and policeman all mark their territory.

Connor Bannister’s Perkins cold-and-hot milkman (with a delicious fourth-wall as gynaecologist), and Josh Capper as Neighbour also impress. Some might remember Capper as a memorable Mickey in 2016: he’s always alternated these two roles. Jess Smith as schoolfriend-turned-smug-student Brenda, and Graeme Kinniburgh returning as the obstreperous Bus Conductor all burnish these roles.

“What the English call class.” Blood Brothers has so much to teach us about missed chances, what a single wrong-way move shunts you down if you’re from the wrong side of the class. In particular how prison and medication destroy you. It’s an enduring work because it hits so many truths on the wing and sings them back to you.

Matt Malone’s music direction and pit-band sound is superb but detailed: punchy, percussive, creating that off-chord of fateful motifs. Dan Samson’s sound amplifies this to a crump of decibels, though always musically. Nick Richings’ lighting is necessary at some climactic moments, filtered through a mesh effect to bead darkness: everything’s pitched at a hallucinatory naturalism.

The show runs for nearly two-hours-fifty. It never for a moment seems it, gripping the audience so tightly that after the great peroration ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ reprises the audience rises spontaneously to its feet. This is the production to see, as Colwell Evans burns through singing to a gaunt-voiced majesty, possessed by Mrs Johnstone. This reinvigorated classic has overwhelming impact: as story, as lyric fable, as terrible moral for these distracted times.