Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Christine Goode, October 2023
Ask any musical theatre enthusiast about their back catalogue of favourite musicals and Blood Brothers is likely to be in there. Willy Russell’s famed tale contains every emotion you can think of, from tears of laughter to tears of tragedy and everything in between. It’s what makes it iconic – and what retains its devoted following. Written in 1981, Russell originally wrote and presented Blood Brothers as a school play, yet the contemporary story of nature versus nurture plot went on to open in London’s West End in 1983 and continues to tour the world today.
Whenever this show goes back on tour, seasoned fans flock to get their tickets and it is no exception at Bradford Alhambra, packed as it is with with avid theatregoers of all ages, including students on school trips studying for GCSEs, to seasoned Blood Brothers aficionados, many of them excitedly discussing how many times they have seen the musical. As we take our seats, I hear people proudly telling each other how many times they have seen this show; four times, six times, 12 times and counting! Me included – this is my sixth sitting – and I believe this production has had the most emotional impact of all.
An immense cast tells the story of how Mrs Johnstone, pregnant with twins and already single-handedly struggling to make ends meet for seven children, is coerced by her childless employer Mrs Lyons to ease the ‘burden’ of an extra mouth to feed, by giving one of the twins to her to raise as her own. Reluctantly agreeing, this incredible story then spans 25 years, covering social, cultural, and historical topics, some of which – children mocking Hitler, games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ – seem a little dated. However, this does not impede the power of the production.
Danny Whitehead is our Narrator, telling the story of the Johnstone twins, his vocals are superb with beautiful harmonies sung with Mrs Johnstone who is played by Niki Colwell Evans. Evans portrays the matriarch of the family, encapsulating the difficulty of solely raising a large family on benefits. With an incredible singing voice she gives a heartbreaking performance as she take us on an emotional rollercoaster, portraying the guilt of giving her baby away, along with facing the struggles of raising her family into adulthood and helping them face their own trials of life. The emotional needs to be huge – and it is – and Evans is believable right to the very end. Taking the final bow, she is still wiping away tears. In a role made iconic by Lyn Paul, Evans is the best Mrs Johnstone I have ever seen played.
Mickey Johnstone, played by Sean Jones, is the twin his mother kept. Jones has played the part for over two decades, and his 7-year-old character is hilarious, very energetic and a joy to watch. From the ‘I Wish I Was Our Sammy’ monologue delivered with great gusto, right through to the emotionally torn adult he becomes, his performance has us in tears – several times. Eddie Lyons, played by Joe Sleight is Mickey’s twin brother, who is fortunate enough to be brought up in an affluent home. Sleight plays the character perfectly, with innocence and naivety, and his vocals are superb.
Nick Wilkes seamlessly plays a bevy of characters and has a multitude of costume changes, he is hilarious in all of them, whizzing around the stage, different accents, it is hard to keep up with him!
The set is traditional, and echoes the era of the piece, with seamless transitions which at times have intended comedic changes, my favourite being the fence flying on at speed with perfect timing as the actors are just about to step onto it.
Iconic songs ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘Bright New Day’, to the heart-wrenching ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ complete this remarkable production. Blood Brothers might leave us in bits, but we’re still able to stand for a rousing ovation as the curtain falls.
Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is at Bradford Alhambra until 4th November