Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Blood Brothers - The Sunderland Empire Theatre

Blood Brothers
Book/Music & Lyrics: Willy Russell
Directors: Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Steve Burbridge

There seems to be a common misconception – particularly amongst less accomplished theatre critics – that the future of ‘Blood Brothers’ depends, predominantly, upon the continued casting of a Nolan in the lead role of Mrs Johnstone. This, in my opinion, is completely wrong.

Having seen three of the sisters (Bernie, Linda and Maureen) play the part, I am the first to emphatically acknowledge and applaud their significant contribution to the success of the show over the last twelve years. However, I do not consider it necessary or fair to be ‘wary’ or ‘concerned’ if one of the aforementioned siblings does not occupy the position of leading lady in Willy Russell’s modern masterpiece.

After all, the list of actresses who have donned the care-worn smile and crossover pinny to portray the Liverpudlian single mother ‘with seven hungry mouths to feed’ reads like a ‘who’s who’ of popular music. They include Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee, Petula Clark, Carole King, Helen Reddy, Clodagh Rodgers, Marti Webb and the current incumbent, Lyn Paul.

Having starred in both the West End and several touring productions of ‘Blood Brothers’, Lyn was hailed, in December 2008, as ‘The Undisputed Mrs Johnstone of All Time’ by fans of the show on the Blood Brothers Online website. She is also rumoured to be producer Bill Kenwright’s favourite Mrs Johnstone, too. No pressure there to deliver the goods then, Lyn! Yet, from the moment she stepped out onto the stage, I felt certain that Miss Paul’s performance would live up to - and perhaps even exceed – my personal expectations.

She looks just right and is vocally impressive, too. Her voice is powerful without being harsh and it is strong enough to travel throughout the auditorium, raising hairs on the backs of necks as it goes. What differentiates Lyn Paul’s performance from most of her peers is her decision to play Mrs Johnstone as a much softer, more sensitive woman. This adds another dimension to the character and effectively stamps Paul’s own personal trademark on the role.

It seems futile, to me, to outline the plot of ‘Blood Brothers’ in this review. Suffice to say that if you don’t know anything about the show that is affectionately dubbed ‘Scouse: The Musical’ then the past quarter of a century has completely passed you by. Instead, it seems more appropriate to focus on the performances and the production.

Whilst I was greatly impressed by Lyn Paul’s depiction of Mrs Johnstone, I am not sure that I’d rate her as my all-time favourite. I’ve seen the role performed by Siobhan McCarthy, Helen Hobson, Marti Webb and the three members of the Nolan clan mentioned earlier. I also have cast recordings of Barbara Dickson, Petula Clark and Stephanie Lawrence.

The Liverpudlian accent is notoriously difficult to mimic convincingly and if a performer is unable to master it perfectly, then it is prudent to underplay it rather than force it as Marti Webb did during her brief stint as Mrs J. Lyn Paul chooses to err on the side of caution and only gives the merest hint of a Scouse twang. Where Miss Paul really shines is in her portrayal of a torn mother. The scene in which she inadvertently reacquaints herself with the twin son that she gave away as an infant eight years earlier is heart-rending and played perfectly.

Sean Jones and Simon Willmont were billed as the twins, Mickey and Eddie, who are separated at birth and grow up on opposite sides of the social-class spectrum. However, an announcement made prior to the performance informed the audience that the role of Mickey would be played by the understudy, David Cooper. As usual, Willmont was outstanding in his portrayal of ‘posh’ Edward. Unfortunately, though, Cooper – despite his seemingly obvious attempt to make the most of his opportunity – fell short as scruffy Mickey, and this affected the portrayal of the relationship between the two brothers.

Robbie Scotcher – one of the best narrators that I have ever seen – gave his usual polished performance. His understated portrayal of this sinister spectre from the shadows combined with the haunting beauty of his singing voice creates a lasting impression for all the right reasons. Paula Tappenden, as the neurotic and paranoid Mrs Lyons, seems to deliver her lines through a mouthful of marbles, whilst Tim Churchill, as Mr Lyons, mutters and mumbles throughout his performance. You’d think that the middle-class couple, of all people, would have had elocution lessons in their youth. Certainly, though, something needs to be done about diction in both cases.

There is no disputing the status of ‘Blood Brothers’ as a contemporary classic. It has captivated audiences all over the world and won a plethora of awards. However, in my view, the production standards have been allowed to slide. The relentless rigours of constant touring are beginning to show on some of the scenery. Whilst peeling wallpaper may add an air of authenticity if it were evident in the Johnstone household, it looks out of place and downright tatty when seen in the Lyons’ home.

Since producer Bill Kenwright took charge 21 years ago, the show must have made him a tidy sum. Well, Mr Kenwright, it is about time you started putting in instead of taking out. Failing that, pass the reins over to someone who is prepared to invest some time, money and effort into the phenomenon that is ‘Blood Brothers.’ Having recently celebrated its silver anniversary, it would be a travesty if the brand was allowed to tarnish now.

Blood Brothers runs at The Sunderland Empire until Saturday 26 September 2009.
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