Blood Brothers

28th March to 1st April 2023

Willy Russell | Belgrade Theatre Coventry | Directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright

Willy Russell’s multi-award-winning musical about twins separated at birth is the stuff of theatre legend. Directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, the latest touring production, which opened in Coventry last night (and will also visit Cheltenham, Sheffield, Chelmsford, Bristol and Brighton) confirms why: it is a timeless and moving show which never fails to bring audiences to their feet. It lived up to its affectionate title of the ‘Standing Ovation Musical’ at the Belgrade’s opening night after stunning performances from the whole talented cast.

Mrs Johnstone is the beating heart of the story. A working-class single mother struggling to make ends meet, her decision to give up one of her twin boys to the wealthy housewife she cleans for is not made easily. The success of any production of Blood Brothers relies upon Mrs Johnstone: Niki Colwell Evans delivers a powerhouse performance in the role. She radiates maternal warmth with ease in the first half and is equally convincing as the show takes a darker turn in the second half.

Personal reservations about adults playing children means I’ve always struggled with the first half of the piece, when twins Mickey and Eddie are 8-year-olds growing up on ‘opposite sides of the tracks’ in 1960s Liverpool. Sean Jones’, in an oversized moth-eaten cardigan, captures the mischievous charm of the young Mickey nicely and is particularly strong reciting a poem about being “nearly eight.”

Joe Sleight’s Eddie, Mickey’s blood brother being raised as an only child in a middle-class home, is equally charming albeit a charm rooted in sincerity and honesty. The friendship formed is entirely convincing which heightens the inevitable tragedy when it comes and underpins the emotional journey as we move into the far more dramatically satisfying second half.

Despite offering an evening in the theatre with plenty of laughs, this is no fairytale musical. Any Beatles-inspired notion that “all you need is love” is firmly rejected. Love simply isn’t enough when you cannot afford to feed yourself and your family. Themes of social class and inequality of opportunity remain depressingly relevant in 2023 but what strikes me more is a rather bleak message about love. Mrs Johnstone’s unconditional, uncomplicated love for her children isn’t enough; pitted against the harsh economic realities of working-class life, her warmth and affection is not a sufficient foundation for Mickey to succeed. The repressed, emotionally cold, straitlaced Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden – jittery, neurotic) is financially stable and this alone provides the foundation for Eddie to follow a quite different path. Nature O, Nurture 1.

Blood Brothers may be melodramatic but there’s a very good reason why it is one of only three musicals to surpass 10,000 West End performances: we care. Niki Colwell Evans’ performance of ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ is worth the ticket price alone but there are a cast full of other reasons to catch this excellent touring production.

Blood Brothers is playing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry from Tuesday 28th March to Saturday 1st April 2023. Tour Details.

Blood Brothers Cover