Willy Russell’s premise Blood brothers Is simple. Poverty forces a working mother in Liverpool to separate her twins soon after they are born. A single parent with an existing offspring of children, she can afford to keep one, while the other is raised by her wealthy childless employer. Mickey has lots of love in his pass-through holey sweater. Edward has a privileged upbringing, but finds a kindred spirit – a blood brother – in the scruffy boy who lives nearby and shares his birthday. Growing up, the couple also attract local girl Linda.
“Living on the never never / Constant like the changing weather / Never sure / Who’s at the door / Or the price I’ll have to pay”
Blood brothers is often described as a story of nature versus nurture. But it’s also about class and privilege, housing, unemployment, mental health, and the ability to make good choices. The UK is slipping into recession. Families like Edward’s will cut their fabric based on their diminished cash flow, to the detriment of working people like Mickey who will be trapped in unemployment and the rising cost of living. songs like Easy terms and Miss Jones feel very contemporary. Blood brothers may be set between the 1960s and 1980s, but many of its underlying issues are still relevant in 2022.
Mickey’s mom, Mrs. Johnston, is hosted by Niki Evans. She’s the strongest performer in the current 14-person touring cast, with Evans putting her soul into her songs. Its very revisited Marilyn Monroe number increases in intensity and complexity each time it is picked up.
The initial mix of mostly serious but partly comedic comedy swings awkwardly into a moment of tonal dissonance as the young boys take the stage and turn up the laughter. Sean Jones and Jay Worley play Mickey and Eddie between the ages of 7 and 25. Initially, every male child is a bit wacky with an infant’s gait. But soon, the age difference is no longer noticed as they have fun and go in and out of scratches.
Still in business nearly 40 years after its first performance, Blood brothers is a product of its time and environment from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. While three of the lead roles are female, the other two female leads are secondary. The story is told by a man, framing the masculinity of the tale. The police are men. It is assumed that the ungendered baby will be a boy. It’s not entirely clear whether Mickey’s prescription of antidepressants is about prison authorities taming him or genuinely addressing his poor mental health. But what is certain is that his family’s insistence that he go cold turkey off the tablets would today be seen as bad advice and blur the lines of who is right and who is wrong in the last sections of the second act.
Although Linda’s love interest doesn’t have a particularly rich characterization in the musical’s book, Carly Burns works with what’s there to create a believable connection between her and the young boys. The narrator hides in the background of many scenes, before coming to center stage to repeat warnings of the dangers facing the separated twins. Richard Munday doesn’t quite deliver the necessary sense of menace or vocal presence to give the role full storytelling impact and meaning.
Full credit to the tour production team: Blood brothers is one of the few productions touring the Grand Opera House this year without notable technical hiccups 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 weight and magic that the cult musical enjoys so much was far beyond me, it was a quality show that quickly put audiences on their feet by the end.
Blood brothers performs eight times a week for the next fortnight at the Grand Opera House, Belfast with the final show on Saturday August 13.
Production plans (before some recent cast changes) by Jack Merriman
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