This show is exhilarating. At the end of the first night performance at Cambridge Arts Theatre the entire audience stood up and cheered, all of them: stalls, circle, and boxes. The cast took four curtain calls.
They could have taken 10 but someone switched on the house lights.
Usually when actors take their bow, however tragic the play, they are all smiles. This cast still looked moved – they believed in the parts they played which was why we did. They acted their hearts out.
The first time I saw this show, in the West End in 1983, I sobbed throughout. I was pregnant then. Now the child is about to turn 40 I am less sentimental. But actually, it wasn’t that that kept me from crying (just). The comic timing and the humour of the performances kept the show and the audience buoyant.
Niki Colwell Evans is a dazzling Mrs Johnstone -her beautiful voice fills the theatre with the show’s ever hummable tunes. These were made even more compelling by her immaculate characterisation.
We know Mrs Johnstone. She has so little, but she keeps her pride and her sense of humour. That carries her through. She is the female Wilkins Micawber – something will always turn up.
It is not easy for adults to play children but Sean Jones as Mickey, Joe Sleight as Eddie, both eight –Timothy Lucas as big brother Sammy Johnstone (aged 10) and Gemma Brodrick as Linda were an absolute joy.
Their impersonations of primary school children were as beguiling, engaging, and remarkable as their striking transitions first into teenagers and then adults. Their demeanour throughout was amusing, poignant and in the end heart-breaking.
For those who don’t know the story, written by playwright Willy Russell, set in Liverpool in the early 1960s it is the tale of twin boys.
They don’t know they are brothers. Mickey and Eddie are born to Mrs Johnstone, who finds that she is pregnant after her husband has left her with six kids.
She can’t pay her milk bill. The bailiffs take her furniture and the kid’s toys. She is threatened with having her children taken into care. She gets a job as a cleaner to Mrs Lyons a well-off woman who can’t have children.
When Mrs Lyons finds out there are twins on the way, she offers to adopt one, first gently and then browbeats desperate Mrs Johnstone into it. You will be able to see him every day, Mrs Lyons assures poor Mrs Johnstone. Then Mrs Lyons sacks her.
The boys meet up by chance as children but are forbidden to play with each other. They do anyway. They swear to be blood brothers and as they grow up both fall in love with the same girl, their childhood playmate, Linda.
One twin, Eddie, receives a university education. The other, Mickey, gets a prison sentence and comes out to life on the dole.
What we see in Joe Sleight’s perfectly elocuted, endearingly gauche Eddie – who has never missed out on any material thing in his life – and Sean Jones’s broken Mickey who cannot find work and can’t put a roof over his family’s head – is the class divide, as present now as it ever was.
Plays are usually about when they are written rather than when they are set. Liverpool was hit hard in Thatcher’s Britain.
Today we have more hungry children in Britain today than at any time in our history.
Plaudits to Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons and several other smaller parts, all played with panache and great comic timing, Sarah Jane Buckley as Mrs Lyons – the lady Macbeth of the show, tormented in the end by fear and guilt, and the Narrator Danny Whitehead who is the engine of the show keeping it fast paced and exciting.
With a live band under Matt Malone of keyboard, guitars, bass, drums, and saxophones playing Russell’s memorable and moving tunes, and directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, this is exactly what a musical should be: lively, thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking but massively entertaining and uplifting.
My one regret: not bringing flowers to throw onto the stage. Absolutely magnificent.
Blood Brothers is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday August 4.
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