Review: Blood Brothers, Leeds Grand Theatre, 18/07/2011
When?: Monday 18th July 2011
Where?: Leeds Grand Theatre, Dress Circle
Who?: Niki Evans, Craig Price, Sean Jones, Chris Carswell, Tracy Spencer, Kelly-Anne Gower, Daniel Taylor, Tim Churchill, Graham Martin, Joanne Dalladay, Jonathan Vickers, Karl Greenwood, Abby Simpson, Graeme Kinniburgh
Last night provided a welcome return to the show dubbed the ‘standing ovation musical’, Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s classic musical adaption of his own play set in 1980s Liverpool. When it premiered in 1983 this was a contemporary commentary piece, now in 2011 it is simply a great piece of theatre, accessible for younger viewers and equally enjoyable for the seasoned theatregoer, Blood Brothers could be considered the musical for the people.*
Returning after many years away from this, the most scouse of all musicals, I was simply blown away and reminded what a superb musical this really is – and just how moving it can be when done well. By the time Niki Evans, undoubtedly the star of the show, had finished belting out the anthemic ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, there was scarcely a dry eye** in the packed auditorium.
Blood Brothers tells the story of Mrs. Johnstone, a working class single mother who, when discovering she is to have twins, and struggling to provide for the children she already has, agrees to give one of the pair away to her infertile employer, the upper-middle class Mrs. Lyons. The twins, Mickey and Eddie, meet by chance aged 7 and swear to be ‘blood brothers’ for life. The rest of the play follows the twins through their teenage years, into adulthood and finally their tragic demise, as depicted at the start of the show; interestingly this is the second Kenwright touring musical in a week to open with with dead bodies on stage – never let it be said that musicals are frivolous or camp! Personally, in hindsight I wish that Grease had opened on a mass funeral – shortly followed by the curtain call – but I digress.
This tour seems to have undergone a revamp since my last visit and is looking in wonderful shape. The direction and comic timing is spot on and had the audience in fits of laughter, particularly amusing were Blood Brothers veteran Sean Jones as Mickey and Chris Carswell as a very endearing Eddie-ward. The sets thankfully appear to have been cleaned and maintained and looked fantastic from the dress circle and, importantly, there was a general freshness and energy to the performance which, again, is no mean feat after nearly 16 years on the road on-and-off. What never changes, but what also never ceases to amaze are the incredibly dated eighties synthesised effects, particularly the synthesised drums and over-use of reverb and echo utilised to support the incredibly small ‘orchestra’, the scale of which is made all the more apparent in the context of the Leeds Grand’s enormous pit.
Former talent show hopeful Niki Evans excels as Mrs. Johnstone. Her vocals, in particular, are the finest I have had the fortune to hear in the role. She belts out her numbers with gusto; “Easy Terms” was beautiful and moving and she freed the shackles and let rip in “Bright New Day”, pulling off some truly impressive soul-inspired belting. Her acting, whilst subtle compared to the numerous Nolans’, was entirely believable and considered.
Faced with the unenviable task of replacing the definitive Keith Burns as the omnipresent Narrator, Craig Price faltered somewhat in the first act, perhaps feeling a little too laid back – overheard audience interval comments included a comparison with an insurance salesman (sans the intensity). Price really pulled it out of the bag in the second act however and impressed in later scenes – perhaps that was the plan all along. Kelly-Anne Gower is fine as the long term love interest of the twins Linda, having some nice moments as she transforms from child, to flirtatious teenager to ‘drudgery’ as she becomes a woman.
The show certainly earned its crowd pleasing moniker with a unanimous standing ovation.
Blood Brothers plays the Leeds Grand Theatre until 23/07/2011
- Harry Zing
*Many of the overriding themes such as class division, superstition and religion are timeless; it is these themes which helped the text be included in the GCSE national syllabus, making this tour very popular with school groups and helping guarantee the show’s future.
**Unfortunately, there was a mobile phone incident in the final scenes, but this did not distract too much from the emotional engagement with the performance. I do not know of a regional theatre who make ‘turn off your phones’ announcements at intervals like is standard on Broadway – I would think this would stop similar incidents..