Theatre Review: Blood Brothers, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Empire Theatre

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: September 20 2016
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

“Did you ever hear the story of the Johnstone twins?”

The narrator of Blood Brothers, played by Dean Chisnall, opens and closes the show with this statement. When it begins, we’re not to know the true details of the highs and lows of the Johnstone twins, although we are given a visual clue as to what lies ahead. Unusually, the narrator tells us the outcome at the beginning, with the show acting almost as a biography of how the Johnstone twins would meet their fate. By the time we hear this statement repeated, we know their story. Oh, do we know their story. And their story is one of manipulation, humour, heartbreak, triumph, sadness and ultimately tragedy. It’s incredibly compelling, and the show as a whole is simply incredible.

After the narrator’s foreboding opening, we are quickly introduced to Mrs Johnstone (Lyn Paul); a cheerful lady who struggles to manage the children that she has only for her to fall pregnant again, and then for her husband to leave her to fight for herself. Complicating matters, she quickly learns that she is having twins – hence, the Johnstone twins. But with Mrs Lyons (Sarah Jane Buckley), who Mrs Johnstone is working for as a home cleaner, struggling to have children at all, a deal is made and sworn on the Bible, with Mrs Johnstone having to be heavily persuaded, it must be said. The twins are separated early in life, with the promise that the twin who comes under Mrs Lyons’ control – Eddie – will never be too far away.

Only, Mrs Lyons’ care of her “child” borders on the obsessive, to the point where her relationship with Mrs Johnstone breaks down. As time goes on, the two twins – Eddie, played by Joel Benedict, and Mickey Johnstone, played by Sean Jones – are reunited, becoming friends whilst never realising that they are related, and without understanding why their parents are so adamant that they cannot see each other. However, their bond becomes so strong, so quick, that they become what they describe as “Blood Brothers”. From here, a series of events keep the two apart, only for them to meet again in the future. As they grow older, Mrs Lyons’ mental state deteriorates, and the friendship, while as strong as ever, begins to show cracks when the struggles of life get to Mickey. Soon, it seems as if they were never meant to be friends, and after some serious setbacks, their paths intertwine once more in a way that seemed unfathomable earlier on.

The story is told over the course of several hours, making this a lengthy production – but your eyes are glued to the stage for the duration. It is set in mid-20th century Liverpool, with the happy-go-lucky nature of one family contrasting with the attempted prim and proper style of another. The hardships of Merseyside life during a recession are emphasised, as are the consequences of one seemingly small decision having grave consequences in the long-run. Although one can occasionally sense what is going to happen, the story is generally unpredictable, allowing key moments to have a much bigger impact, both on the characters and on the paths that they take.

What makes the show really work, however, are the performances. For starters, Lyn Paul is a simply phenomenal singer; older members of the audience will recognise her from her days in the group The New Seekers, but even they will be blown away by her vocal range and her ability to integrate a wide variety of emotions, covering the entire spectrum, into her singing and her acting. She is completely believable as the mother with her heart in the right place, who puts her family first and who puts herself in awkward situations for the benefit of those that she loves. This, combined with her world-class singing, results in her treating us to one of the best all-around theatre performances that I have ever seen. The show is worth seeing for her alone.

But there’s more. Sarah Jane Buckley, whilst being only an occasional character that has, as the narrator puts it, a “heart of stone”, is extremely convincing as Mrs Lyons, the lady who believes that money is the answer to all problems, only for her to suffer mental issues as she slowly loses control of situations for which she will always feel guilt. Joel Benedict does a great job as Eddie Lyons, with his “posh” accent providing a stark contrast to the Scouse dialect used by most of the remaining characters, in particular Mickey. And as for Sean Jones, who plays Mickey: his range may be the most impressive of all. He goes from playing a wacky, over-excited kid to a cheeky yet good-hearted teenager to a struggling, outspoken adult to a depressed, mentally-tortured addict. A scene in the final third between him and Linda (Danielle Corlass, who is also very good), his childhood friend turned wife, at home while he struggles to comprehend life without his medication is heart-breaking to watch and has the audience in tears (and not for the last time).

As for the other characters: most play a minor role, but Dean Chisnall stands out due to his somewhat intimidating manner as the narrator. He is always looking on at the families and, in particular, the two mothers as they encounter plenty of situations stemming from that original decision to separate the twins. Of note, he is there to remind both of the ladies that they can’t run away from the choice they made, as well as foreshadowing us that the oblivious and innocent twins are going to run into trouble at some point. He serves almost as a walking conscience, and his presence makes a real impact, almost to a fault: his judgemental appearances combined with the use of chilling music border on creepy, and have one’s mind racing while watching the show about the dangers of small decisions turning into massive, life-altering choices, as well as the idea of never being able to escape or rebound from certain decisions which were made with good intentions.

Many of the songs are excellent, and the lyrics in most of them have meaning to the story. Easy Terms is performed very well, but the most memorable song is Tell Me It’s Not True. Comparisons to Marilyn Monroe are frequent, from her rise to her ultimate fall and her own tragic end. They relate well to the struggles encountered by both the Johnstone and Lyons families, and Mrs Johnstone’s final rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True to close the show is sung with such emotion, power and sadness that one can literally hear people crying their eyes out. That a theatre show can grab one’s emotions and trigger such a reaction, when we all know that what we are seeing is ultimately fictional, is some achievement; one that writer Willy Russell should be very proud of. Harking back to an earlier point, this closing number by Johnstone is probably the best musical performance that I have heard in any theatre show ever. It is that good.

And let’s not forget that the show isn’t all sad; as a matter of fact, much of it is presented as a comedy, and a lot of the material is very funny. It does rely on Liverpool slang, meaning that audiences outside of the city may find it a little less humorous, but nevertheless a local audience will completely get the jokes and laugh out loud at how the contrast between the two twins leads to some really funny one-liners, which are played completely straight due to Eddie not realising the impact of certain words, and where and when is most appropriate to use them (if at all, in the case of swear words). It is a superb concoction of various lifestyles, classes, situations, hardships, settings and genres. Another interesting aspect is how the same people play the younger characters throughout their lives, and how certain background actors play multiple characters, although this is never acknowledged. Plus, the story is easy to follow, basically from the very beginning.

I almost feel guilty for even trying to think of ways in which this show could have been better, because it is practically flawless. Really, all I could suggest is that it runs a little bit long, and as one or two of the songs don’t really add anything to the story, they perhaps could have been left out allowing for a slightly shorter and more succinct experience. The sound levels were slightly off towards the end of the first half, too, meaning that the vocals were slightly overwhelmed by the background music. But they are very minor comments, because the show is fantastic; even the simple settings which show the Liverpool sky-line lit up at night and graffiti-stained walls surrounding the residential housing are very effective.

In closing, Blood Brothers is a must-see. It is the best theatre show I have ever seen, and it is one that everyone who appreciates the art of theatre should go out and see. I would say that if you struggle when watching shows that handle real, serious situations in a heartbreaking fashion, then you may be best letting your friends go along and see it; the performances are so authentic that it may leave some walking away with a negative vibe. But I suppose that illustrates just how good the production is for it to create that emotion amongst those who watch it. From the nail-biting story to the outstanding acting to the phenomenal singing to the frequent and effective use of local humour, Blood Brothers is that rare treat: a perfect show which I give my very highest recommendation to. See it tonight; it is a blockbuster production.

Overall Rating: 10/10 – Perfect