Blood Brothers At The Churchill Theatre
2023 is a timely moment for the revival of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. Set in Liverpool in the early 1960s, it’s sentiments and themes still have resonance today. It tells the story of the Johnstone twins, separated at birth by a desperate and secret pact between two women. One twin is given away to Mrs Lyons to be brought up in an upper middle class family in the hope that education and money will keep him away from trouble. This is in sharp contrast to Mrs Johnstone who as the birth mother, is keeping one of her twins and is raising her family as a single parent who is constantly fending off debt collectors and desperately trying to keep her boys on the straight and narrow.
I was lucky enough to see the superb Paula Tappenden portray the part of Mrs Johnstone at this performance and it came to my surprise that her usual part is that of Mrs Lyons. Both character are incredibly difficult to portray and have stark contrasts in terms of characteristics but are both weighed down by guilt and pain. Tappenden executed the difficult part of Mrs Johnstone brilliantly and her powerful raw emotions were truly captivating to watch. The same can be said for Gemma Brodrick who was captivating as Mrs Lyons.
The catholic religion, guilt and sin are all central themes to the play. The constant fear Mrs Johnstone has of losing both her boys looms over her throughout the play, as does Mrs Lyons guilt in having taken someone else’s child. The story is set in motion by the pivotal scene where Mrs Johnstone hands over one of her sons and the tense underscoring by Willy Russell and dramatic lighting by Nick Richings helps convey the momentum of this event.
Despite the somber themes, the play is punctuated with comic interludes. Mickey’s central monologue as a 7 (but nearly 8) year old was brilliantly executed by Sean Jones who was able to capture all the childlike qualities children that age would possess. His physical movements were so energetic and playful and it did not take long to forget he was an adult playing a child. Mickey desperately wants to be more grown up and the constant reminder from his tyrannous older brother Sammy played by Timothy Lucas that he is the boss foreshadows the trouble he forces his younger brother into later in the play.
It was a brilliant ensemble piece from the whole cast with multi-roling at its finest. Some other standout performances from Olivia Sloyan playing Linda and Joe Slight playing Eddie were both refreshing and entertaining as they portrayed the young characters well whilst also managing to seamlessly transition to adulthood showing the characters growth and struggles.
The set by Andy Walmsley was impressive and large for a touring production and the backdrop of the silhouetted Liverpool skyline was particularly striking. On a stage as big as the Churchill Theatre, the actors managed to fill it well, particularly Richard Munday as the Narrator who’s looming presence seemed to be everywhere at once. A difficult part to play, needing to be visible to the audience but hidden to the characters on the stage, Munday gave a memorable performance. His vocals were particularly powerful with the song Shoes Upon The Table which serves as a reminder of the bad luck that ensues when a sin -in this case giving up a child at birth and someone taking something that that doesn’t belong to them- is committed.
Since its debut in 1981, Blood brothers continues to be a triumph of a show which, even now, draws parallels with present day Britain and is a reminder of contemporary financial hardship. It’s universal themes of motherhood, class and friendships and the ties of ‘brotherhood’ in the widest sense, still resonate today.
Review by Anoush Kendrick
Blood Brothers is on at The Churchill Theatre until 4th March and it then continues its tour. You can find out more here.