Blood Brothers – Bord Gais Theatre – Review
by Brian Merriman
Book, Music and Lyrics by Willy Russell
Directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright
Designed by Andy Walmsey
Lighting by Nick Richings
Sound by Sam Damson
07 – 18 February 2023
Duration 2 hours and 20 minutes
Willy Russell is a writer. He writes about the people he knows, the politics he lives and for the theatre he loves. This iconic musical theatre play makes another return visit to Dublin as it ‘storms’ back to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. That is a short crossing from Liverpool to Dublin and the cross-cultural 1980s references resonate through shared history.
Russell helped reform the more saccharin reputation of musical theatre by turning away form from glitz and glam to drama and effect in the bleaker 1980s. In fact, he and others, went back to the more dramatic and vengeful roots of opera, to lead this renewal of the relevance of musical theatre, which brought forward new concepts of musical construction, design, direction and drama. He explores many personal themes and challenges the more privileged definitions of morality. There can be no single ‘book of rules’ when there is no single book of circumstances in life. Mrs Johnstone and her children know that.
The 80s also created new musical stars with a skillset built from a more dramatic palate. Rebecca Storm was a worthy part of that new crop of dramatic musical talent and it defies all time to witness the freshness and depth of her latest iteration of the timeless Mrs Johnstone.
Many Irish stars headed to the West End to make their mark. Storm headed via Russell’s epic work, to live in Ireland and how fortunate are we to have this real star amongst us. Her empathy and resolve, her burden of mistakes and her unfailing capacity to love despite the absence of so many supports, poured off the stage. Her seamless soaring voice is the stuff of goosebumps. The part is hers and she owns it as much today as she did when she first trod the boards as Mrs Johnstone. Talent is timeless.
Many musicals of that innovative era are returned in fresh productions. Not so, under the co-direction of Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright. The physical production was traditional, within a small set for such a big stage. The breaching of the ‘fourth wall’ for the dramatic ending is old hat, but the interpretative direction was fresh and alive, fun and dark within the stellar cast. There were many fine musical moments.
This is a play about love and class. There is a lovely social contrast between Sean Jones as ‘Mikey’ in a complex, naive and physical performance of the twin ‘left behind’ and Joe Sleight’s ‘Eddie’ which was a beautiful study in presence and delivery. Their playing together and great singing drove the plot in such a connecting way, to make them inseparable in our affection.
The tempo zips along like the children’s lives onstage – full of nostalgic reminders of when children could play with only their imagination and fresh air for company. Russell’s glorious score and ability to allow us to see the boys grow and mature from birth to 7 to adulthood remind all who see it of the child inside.
Richard Mundy’s sinister presence as the Narrator is as judgemental as it was well sung. His ‘Thatcheristic’ relentless moralising reminds us of the prejudices and powerful superstitions which fed those unforgiving times. The impact of life circumstances, prescribed or not, from Olivia Sloyan’s impressive ‘Linda’, to Paula Tappenden’s emotionally chaotic ‘Mrs Lyons’ and Timothy Lucas’s roguish ‘Sammy’ were among the many highlights in this talented ensemble. The dramatic finale burrows deep into your emotions and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It is powerful.
There was a serious unresolved sound issue in Act One – a mugginess and an imbalance between the stage and pit. This was well resolved in Act 2 and the audience responded immediately to the new clarity.
Russell writes about life and brotherhood. His recreation of lives we knew, made us all family again. To be able to have another cup of tea with Rebecca Storm’s Mrs Johnstone and her family in her neighbourhood, was something longed for, delivered in style and not to be missed.
Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review
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