Brighton Year-Round 2020
This revival of Willy Russell’s 1983 perennial Blood Brothers, is co-directed by Bill Kenwright (with Ben Tomson) who also produces. It’s designed as before by Andy Walmsley. Scott Alder’s music direction and Dan Samson’s sound amplifies this to a crump of decibels. Nick Richings’ lighting is pitched at a hallucinatory naturalism. Lyn Paul returns too as Mrs Johnstone taking the lead one last time.
It’s the musical that keeps drawing cast members back in. With storytelling that nails its tenderness on tenement walls, memorable music and lyrics all by Willy Russell, is it any wonder? This year too it’s Lyn Paul’s farewell tour in the central role after more than a decade.
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, and there’s a few balcony takes to emphasize class.
Scott Alder’s music direction and the pit-band sound is phenomenal in this space: punchy, percussive and creating that strange off-chord of fateful motifs. Dan Samson’s sound amplifies this to a crump of decibels I’ve not experienced here, though always musically. It’d be a little high for some tastes.
Nick Richings’ lighting is necessary at some climactic moments, filtered through a mesh effect to bead darkness; everything’s pitched at a hallucinatory naturalism. There are a few shaky lighting-cues but this is a first night. And Lyn Paul returns as Mrs Johnstone taking the lead, along with several other cast members (Joel Benedict as Eddie, Paula Tappenden as Mrs Lyons, Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons) returning to familiar parts, alongside those in role for the first time.
In a show of such sterling provenance, the reappearance of Paul and experienced cast members anchors this production in its history. Returning here twice – over ten and three years on – what strikes one about Paul is the even greater sense of foreboding and stoic power, more than very raw emotion. What’s also fascinating is how a more recent part taken by say Robbie Scotcher’s ominous Narrator, nudges the drama a little further on than one remembers. Scotcher’s clean lean delivery seems one-third-devil, one-third-enabler, one-third-conscience.
The epilogue of the story’s played out at the beginning and then the fable of the Johnstone twins unfolds at such a pace as to partly banish, partly reinforce our sense of that massive reveal.
It’s sometime in the early 1950s, and Mrs Johnstone – we never learn her first name – is courted (‘Dancing’) married and 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 woman she cleans for, Tappenden’s initially twittery 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 separation and fateful reunion of the twins, their confluence and growing apart, plays out against the backdrop of their very different class aspirations. And centred on the very same girl, Linda – Danielle Corlass, making an winning little-voice transition from confident child to sexy – and vulnerable – young woman.
This ‘folk opera’ is several things: Brechtian theatre by way of Stratford East and Joan Littlewood, with Russell’s memorable lyrics married to equally catchy insistent melodies, as the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ refrain which only occasionally seems strained as a catch-all but for the most part ingeniously twisted to ends you’d never expect, including medication. There are duets like ‘My Child’ where the real and faux mothers sing their different feelings, and the bittersweet realism of ‘Easy Terms’ taking on several meanings as Paul yet again commands a lyrical but elegiac centre stage with heft and delicacy – as the bailiffs repossess every stitch of Higher Purchase furniture.
Then there’s the mythic supernatural. A sometimes sinister Narrator, Scotcher’s authentically smoky localism dogs the shadows of all protagonists, with both regret (if the fateful trio could just stay eighteen) and a whiff of brimstone as he keeps intoning the devil and singing the catching lucklessness of ‘Shoes Upon the Table’ to minor chord disruptions. His voice cuts through its smokiness, edging to sinister and almost Mephistopholean settling to accounts as he reminds each character – somewhere in their unconscious – there’s an account to pay after swearing oaths and curses. This dimension transcends the class he accents at the end, but at the same time repositions it.
Whereas Paul anchors with her 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. Alexander Patmore’s winning, hapless madcap growing up and shrivelling down is superbly done with physical precision, from ebullience to shrunken drug-dependant hollowness, slowed down, ashen with premature age. Patmore even enacts the pseudo-Parkinsons of anti-psychotic drugs.
The baleful influence of his gun-happy workshy elder brother Sammy (Daniel Taylor’s rangy menace wholly convinces, he sweats anger) pushes Patmore’s Mickey further away from a chance of squaring with life. But more decisive is what life, employment and no real opportunity, do to him. It corrodes too his relationship with his ‘blood brother’ Eddie, and his new wife Linda.
Benedict’s Eddie can still seem extraordinarily childlike and transforms all cut-glass-class to the well-to-do councillor in a couple of hours in a flop-haired decency. Like Patmore and Corlass, his growing is the great acting up of the night, and his fateful attraction to Linda something that shows his true worth (he cares nothing for snobby uni friend) and fragility. The songs he shares with Patmore, ‘Long Sunday Afternoon’ and later ‘That Guy’ are winningly matched.
Corlass too shares in this growing and her vocal transformation is matched by an ardent high soprano that nails her strength and vulnerability, worn down even beyond her own quiet heroism. From the girl who always strikes her target, to the one who fatefully strikes two, it’s her tragedy too.
Tappenden’s Mrs Lyons as the thankless near-villain duets with Paul with a rich harmony between them; her neurotic terrified meanness is explained at least. Mrs Lyons’ very identity is bound by a secret. Tappenden shows Lyons falling apart slowly as crumpled paranoia and guilt-steeped slashes of anger seamlessly erupt from her.
All the parts are as well-etched and cameo’d as you’d expect. Churchill’s unctuousness suggests a platonic pipe-clamping moment. Seasoned, he’s also long been entrusted with being assistant director on the tour. Grace Galloway whether pregnant older sister or the Mrs Jones ordered to fire everyone and fired herself; or returnee Paul Westwood’s authority roles as teacher and policeman all mark their territory.
Shaun McCourt’s Perkins the cold-and-hot milkman (with a delicious fourth-wall moment 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. Hannah Barr as schoolfriend turned smug student Brenda, and Graeme Kinniburgh 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 can destroy you. It’s an enduring work because it hits so many truths on the wing and sings them back to you.
The show runs for nearly two hours forty-five, slightly brisker than 2016. 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 – something I’ve not seen in this theatre: except 2016. This is the production to see, whilst Paul bestrides it one last time. The blend of definitive and new cast members in a recent classic has overwhelming impact: as story, as lyric fable, as terrible moral for these distracted times.