Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Blood Brothers, Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne

Blood Brothers by Willy Russell
Director: Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Ian Cain

It is difficult to believe that ‘Blood Brothers’ is a quarter of a century old, as Willy Russell’s tear-jerking tale seems more resonant and powerful now than ever before. During the last year, the country has slumped into recession, unemployment has risen to 1.92 million - its highest level for more than a decade, and gun crime has brought fear to the streets of our inner cities.

The play centres around Mrs Johnstone, the single mother who struggles to cope with her seven unruly kids and the news that she is expecting twins. With ‘the welfare’ already looking over her shoulder, she desperately tries to hold things together but learns that ‘living on the never-never’ only makes things worse.

It seems that any production of ‘Blood Brothers’ must now have an obligatory Nolan sister to perform the lead role. In this case, Maureen Nolan does a first-class job and her performance epitomises everything that the character should be.

The last time I saw ‘Blood Brothers’ Marti Webb played Mrs Johnstone and her portrayal seemed brittle and aloof in comparison with Maureen Nolan’s warm-hearted matriarch. Nolan is utterly convincing and she tugs at the heartstrings of the audience, forcing them to embark on this poignant and emotional journey with her.

The story of the twin boys, of which ‘one was kept and one given away,’ provides plenty of opportunities for more powerhouse performances and the current cast rises to the challenge marvellously.

Sean Jones is terrific as mucky Mickey, the street-wise ‘twinny’ kept by Mrs Johnstone, whilst Simon Willmont brings vulnerability and sensitivity to prim-and-proper Edward who was given to the barren, middle-class Mrs Lyons. Tracy Spencer is excellent as the neurotic and paranoid Mrs Lyons and her descent into emotional despair at the thought of her ‘son’ still retaining his bond with his biological mother is compelling. Anna Sambrooks is also wonderful as Linda and her transition from tomboy to teenage temptress to tragic young housewife is perfectly executed.

Robbie Scotcher skulks around the stage as the moody, menacing Narrator, tormenting both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons and refusing to let them forget the enormity of the pact they both made and reminding that ‘the Devil’s got your number.’

The drama is underpinned by a beautifully haunting score and the songs have a tendency to lodge in the mind, only to recur when least expected. This is especially true of the emotionally-charged ‘Tell Me It’s Not True.’ It is no surprise that, by the end of the show, the audience were on their feet in a standing ovation and roaring their approval between emotional sobs.

Blood Brothers runs at the Theatre Royal until the 31st Jan 09
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