Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic
Willy Russell’s ‘Blood Brothers’ has well and truly become a classic of the British musical repertoire, and has been moving audiences around the world for over thirty years. After spending twenty-four years in the West End and touring nationally and internationally since, I looked forward to seeing the musical in its current guise, produced by Bill Kenwright, at its stop at the Leeds Grand Theatre.
In case you’re not already familiar with it, ‘Blood Brothers’ brings us to Liverpool and follows the story of Mickey and Eddie Johnstone (Alexander Patmore and Joel Benedict respectively), two twins separated at birth by their mother Mrs Johnstone (Linzi Hateley), who can’t afford to keep them both due to the financial strain of being a single mother with seven other children. Whilst working as a cleaner for the wealthy Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), she is persuaded to give one of her babies to her. Over the course of several years, we see the boys grow up in vastly different backgrounds and navigate events that will change their destinies forever.
It’s easy to see why ‘Blood Brothers’ continues to remain a triumphant classic thirty decades after its arrival onto the English stage, especially after watching this fresh adaptation. Russell’s authorial and musical style shines brighter than ever, with beautifully written musical that synchronises the piece’s narrative elements together; regular musical motifs supercharge the emotional and temporal resonance generated by the epic narrative. The masterfully written text remains sharp, harking back to an era of British writing that boldly challenged societal ideas and provoked discussion, and when combined with themes that remain as timeless as Russell’s musical compositions, ‘Blood Brothers’ remains as poised as ever to stand the test of time.
The portrayals in this new revival also seem poised to stand the test of time; Hateley captures the fierce, driven nature of a mother trying to do the best she can for her children, whilst also capturing the haunted consequences of ill-fated decisions with power and clarity. Patmore and Benedict both craft solid and stunning performances in the two mammoth roles that begin in innocent childhood and end in tragedy as they reach unforgiving adulthood, embodying the roles with sensitivity and performative precision that draws the audience in. On that note, these are qualities that every member of the ensemble possesses – their performances are full of energy and harness a sense of limitless dedication to telling Russell’s epic story to incredible effect.
In the years that ‘Blood Brothers’ has been going, its scenography has hardly changed; it remains a testament to the importance of simplicity and economy in scenographic design and execution. Andy Walmsley’s set design captures the essence of the original production’s set pieces that represent Russell’s play-world; two rows of brick housing line the outer edges of the space, with additional backdrops and furniture being flown in. This streamlined, economical design feature keeps the action precisely contained, amplifying it and magnifying the emotional resonance of the piece. Nick Richings’ lighting design aids this process further, keeping things stripped back and providing plenty of atmospheric washes and lighting states that heighten the drama and enhance the power of Russell’s writing.
Whether you’ve seen it many times before or it’s your first time seeing it, ‘Blood Brothers’ will undoubtedly leave you spellbound and captivated. Russell’s writing and sense of musicality in this piece, especially when brought to life by such a stellar cast, continues to reign supreme in one of British theatre’s most treasured productions.
‘Blood Brothers’ is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 18th May before continuing on tour. For more information, tickets and a full cast and creative list, visit: https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/blood-brothers/