Standing ovation for these Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers opens in Eastbourne Congress Theatre 2016 SUS-160119-144346001
Blood Brothers opens in Eastbourne Congress Theatre 2016 SUS-160119-144346001

After thirty years of Blood Brothers tours, theatre-goers who haven’t actually “heard the story of the Johnstone twins” must be in the minority, but at the Congress Theatre this week, its impact is still just as powerful.

The show is firmly rooted in time and place, especially place. From the 1960s onwards, the showbiz face of Merseyside entertainers was always quite lovable and buoyant; but that is only one side of the story. Blood Brothers shows us the other side, darker, more deprived, where Catholic guilt pervades and where your toast always lands buttered side down.

Willy Russell’s tale of brothers separated at birth draws on this rich, colourful background, and directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright create scene after scene that rings with authenticity.

The current tour sees some re-casting, but no loss of quality. No Nolan sisters this time, but Lyn Paul is an utterly human and credible Mrs Johnstone, a Mother Courage figure who bears pain that should be unbearable. She wrenches every drop of emotion from her musical numbers, but she also has a world-weary humour and the odd conspiratorial grin to the audience. Brilliant.

Replacing Marti Pellow, Kristofer Harding is a masterful Narrator, quietly fatalist and slightly sinister, the reminder that these characters are never quite in control of their own lives.

All the actors punch out Russell’s witty, rat-a-tat dialogue with great energy. A versatile ensemble brings a range of characters vividly to life, and the adults-playing-children sequences are deliciously acted, with Mickey’s Roger-McGough style monologue a particular delight. The brothers themselves are superb. Joel Benedict’s Eddie, slightly underwritten at some points, is still convincing and rather engaging. And Sean Jones turns Mickey into a masterpiece of acting, all the way from seven-year-old mischief to tragic adulthood. The credibility of the whole story depends on him, and Jones pulls it off triumphantly.

Scene changes are dropped in smoothly, taking us from seamlessly from back-street slums to middle-class homes and back again, and there is lovely attention to period detail: remember those Ewbank carpet-sweepers? Smart snatches of physical theatre create fairgrounds, cinemas and an absolutely hilarious school classroom.

This is not a show that needs set-piece dance numbers, but instead the choreography is warp and weft with the acting, vigorous and sharply defined. Lighting and sound effects are never knowingly understated, and the musical score itself pours out strong, impassioned themes. But it’s all integral to the Blood Brothers experience and it works.

For this reviewer, the show will always lose half a star for its contrived plot, and possibly another half because its length, especially in the second half, makes the dramatic tension quite hard to maintain. But this particular production and this talented, committed company deserve nothing less than the full five for a breath-taking night of theatre.

At the end, the Congress audience was on its feet. There are moments in theatre when a standing ovation goes beyond simple appreciation, and becomes a fusion of audience and performers, a shared experience. This was such a moment. By Kevin Anderson.