REVIEW: Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York

·5-min read
Nicki Evans and Sean Jones
Nicki Evans and Sean Jones

OUT of nowhere in The Rocky Horror Show’s March return to the Grand Opera House, narrator Philip Franks suddenly mischievously mimicked Blood Brothers. Oh, how everyone chortled.

That’s rich, your reviewer thought, given that Willy Russell’s tragi-comic Liverpool musical is a vastly better structured show without the fall-away in song quality and story in Richard O’Brien’s stupendously silly second act that seemingly all and sundry chooses to ignore.

The chance to compare the two hit shows with the Jacobean tragedy finales comes quickly with the return of Blood Brothers to the Cumberland Street theatre, and if there is any rivalry, it can only be in the number of visits being stacked up.

Rocky Horror? Lost count, but it must be heading for two full sets of fingers. Blood Brothers? Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s perennial production keeps on giving blood, sweat and tears, having chalked up eight runs since 1996.

The ninth is better than ever, bolstered by the return of Niki Evans to the role of Mrs Johnstone after a decade and the chance to see Sean Jones, so synonymous with Mrs J’s son Mickey, on his “last ever tour” after 23 years on the road on and off.

More on, than off, with only eight of them in total spent away from Blood Brothers, his latest break coming since 2019 to tend to his poorly parents. When impresario Kenwright invited him back for the 2022 tour, Jones accepted, and here he is at 51 “running around as a seven-year-old in a baggy green jumper and short trousers”, promising to keep going for as long as Kenwright wants him. Like Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour.

More on Jones’s performance later, but first, what a delight to see Niki Evans reviving her Mrs Johnstone, the mother with the fateful family secret, in a devastatingly moving performance of pathos and pain, jagged-edged Scouse humour, love and desperate resilience.

For Mrs Johnstone, struggling with too many children on an impoverished Liverpool estate and deserted by her waster of a husband, the discovery she is pregnant again, this time with twins, is too much for her budget on the never-never.

She can only “afford” one more child, not two, she tells Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), the barren wife of a travelling businessman from up the posh hill for whom she cleans.

All too rashly, a pact is agreed, one where she gives away one of the baby boys to the cold-hearted Mrs Lyons, setting in motion the superstition that if twins separated at birth ever discover each other’s existence they will die instantly.

Clodagh Rodgers, Stephanie Lawrence, Bernie Nolan, Sharon Byatt, Marti Webb, Maureen Nolan and Lyn Paul have all played Mrs J in York; Evans is the first to do so twice, in her case divided by 11 years.

First time around, in May 2011, your reviewer observed: “Above all others, Evans will stick in the mind, for being the most real. What makes her performance all the remarkable is that the Birmingham mother of two had never seen a theatre show, except for pantomimes, nor heard of Blood Brothers or impresario Bill Kenwright when she was offered the role on the West End stage after making the semi-finals of The X Factor in 2007”.

Eleven years on, benefiting from more rings on the tree of theatre life, Evans remains a natural for musical theatre, more than she was for a burst of X Factor-fuelled pop stardom.

At 49, her voice is even more powerful, her broad face an expressive canvas for so many emotions, played out in a Scouse accent that accentuates light and dark alike. Evans’s council-house upbringing and her experiences as a working mum both bring authenticity to the performance too, not least in her renditions of the show’s supreme numbers, Tell Me It’s Not True, Marilyn Monroe and Easy Terms.

The harshest songs aptly go to Robbie Scotcher’s ever-present Narrator, a Faustian debt collector full of social truths and spooked folklore, as he steers the path of Russell’s 1983 cautionary tale.

In football parlance, Blood Brothers is a game of two halves, as one face of theatre, comedy, is ultimately overwhelmed by the other, tragedy, as it befalls the split-up brothers, scally Mickey (Jones) and scholarly Eddie (Joel Benedict).

Divided by class, their paths nevertheless keep crossing through fate, and once more Jones plays it with all the conviction of a man who believes there is no role in musical theatre to rival Mickey on his journey from cheeky, blissfully innocent child’s play, through tongue-tied teenage love pangs for Linda (Carly Burns), to the forlorn broken adult reliant on mind-numbing pills.

More than ever, you note the changes in his movement, his voice, from skip to slouch and slump, from up to down. Sean, whatever you do next, thank you for making this reviewer laugh and cry down the years.

Benedict more than holds his own as Eddie, the charmer in the making with a rebellious streak that then turns to steely political activism as a councillor. The role is more emotionally contained, to emphasise the contrast in nurturing, but nature permeates the brotherly bond in Jones and Benedict’s performances. Burns burns brightly too as lovely Linda.

Andy Walmsley’s familiar street scenery, Nick Richings’ lighting, Matt Malone’s musical direction and Dan Samson’s sound design all add to the hard-hitting impact of Russell’s unsentimental yet heart-rending doomed drama. Evans and Jones, reunited from 2011 to even more telling effect, make Blood Brothers a Must See once more.

Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight (7/4/2022) and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615.

Charles Hutchinson

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