Blood Brothers -Palace Theatre, Manchester

I spent yesterday afternoon with my eldest daughter watching the fantastic Willy Russell play, Blood Brothers.

I should mention that this is not my first time viewing this wonderful play. I watched it about 4 years ago and a couple of years before that. Having heard the song “Tell Me It’s Not True”, years earlier, when the show that it came from came to Manchester, I made sure we had good tickets.

I loved it. I loved it the first time, I loved it the second time and I loved it again yesterday. Blood Brothers is a funny, yet poignant tale of a poverty-stricken mother, Mrs Johnstone, (played in this performance by Maureen Nolan) who gives up one of her newborn twins to a well-to-do lady, Mrs Lyons (played by Kate Jarmon). The Narrator (played by Marti Pellow) goads the two mothers about the consequences of their “deal”, as he stands in the background and periodically reminds them that “the Devil’s got your number”, in true bogeyman fashion.

As the boys, Mickey and Eddie, meet up accidentally as seven (nearly eight!) year old boys, they are amazed that their birthdays fall on the same day, so they decide to become blood brothers. Although they lose touch following Mrs Lyon’s determination to move away to keep them apart, they meet again as teenagers and eventually fall in love with the same girl. Mickey’s poor upbringing and Eddie’s posh upbringing comes between them as Mickey finds himself with a pregnant wife and without a job, while Eddie goes off to university and becomes a councillor. They are poles apart as Mickey refuses financial help from Eddie and rejects his friendship.

Desperate for money, Mickey helps his brother with a robbery where someone gets shot. Despite having no involvement with the actual shooting, Mickey is sent to prison for 7 years. Hitting rock bottom, he becomes clinically depressed and starts taking anti-depressants. By the time he comes out of prison he is like a zombie. His wife and childhood sweetheart, Linda, goes to Eddie for help to get them a house and a job for Mickey as she fights with Mickey to stop taking the pills. Linda seeks solace with Eddie and when Mickey finds out, he takes a gun to the council chambers to confront Eddie. As Mickey is surrounded by police, Mrs Johnstone runs into the chambers to announce that they are, in fact, twin brothers. Mickey’s gun goes off and shoots Eddie and the police instantly shoot Mickey. Both brothers lay dead surrounded by Mrs Johnstone, Mrs Lyons, the Narrator and Linda as they sing “Tell Me It’s Not True”.

Maureen Nolan was magnificent as Mrs Johnstone, the best one by far out of the three productions I’ve seen. Her portrayal of the hard-working mother was a perfect balance of playful, funny and despairing. Her powerful voice beautifully carried the songs throughout the entire production. “Easy Terms” was a particular highlight. She certainly made up for Marti Pellow’s shortcomings in the role as Narrator. As he attempted to speak in a Liverpudlian accent but unable to control his Scottish pronunciation, his words were mumbled, which left us struggling to tell what he was saying. When he sang, he was loud and clear but slightly out of time with the music on some of the faster paced songs (although I suppose the band may have sped up!) although his voice complemented that of Nolan’s. He managed to just about get through it without ruining the show and was particularly helpful with prop-shifting between each scene!

The “children”, as in every performance I’ve seen, were fantastic, particularly Sean Jones as Mickey and Danielle Corlass as Linda. However, Joe Speight as Eddie and Danny Taylor as Sammy, Mickey’s older brother also did very well as fully grown adults pretended to be young children. The mannerisms were perfect throughout as they portrayed the little scallywags of a 1960’s Liverpool council estate. As they got off their pretend horses every few minutes (taking care to tie them up with their reins) and played cowboys and Indians, they were hilarious as they perfected every nuance of a typical 8 year old child. Mickey, the hyperactive little brother of naughty but revered Sammy and Linda, the clued up and pretty tomboy, are partners in crime with Eddie completing the trio. My stomach ached with laughter at their antics.

Joe Speight did well as Eddie, stepping in for Joel Benedict, but Sean Jones was absolutely spot on as Mickey. His 7 (nearly 8) year old characterisation was funny and his every movement and gesture had been carefully choreographed to give maximum effect. As an adult Mickey, Jones managed to hide the twinkle in his eye that shone so brightly in Act One to play the downtrodden young, yet old, man in Act Two. Corlass manages the same effect in her portrayal of Linda. The stark contrast between youth and adult adds to the poignancy of the final scenes.

In each of the three performances of Blood Brother’s I have seen, despite laughing heartily at a large chunk of the play, there is always that one point where the tears are guaranteed to flow. “Tell Me It’s Not True” is a stunning song and a poignant end to this tragic tale. As the rest of the cast members joined with Mrs Johnstone leading the vocals, the audience shared their sadness. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (except my daughter’s who just doesn’t cry!!) and I’m glad I was unable to stop the tears, as, to me, that was a sign of an amazing performance. To laugh so much and yet to finish the show in tears is a credit to the cast who have themselves  portrayed a multitude of emotions to make the performance spectacular.

I’ll certainly be going again the next time it’s in Manchester. Fourth time’s a charm!