“TELL me it’s not true”, the five words most associated with Blood Brothers, rang around the auditorium time and time again this evening, ironically, as it is all too true that Mrs Johnstone’s twin sons have also died on the same day, causing shock, upset, and a full-house standing ovation at the Hippodrome, with almost two thousand people on their feet, cheering and clapping. Their reaction was fully justified, as this juggernaut of a musical, set very definitely in the late 1970s and early 1980s of unemployment, re-housing, and multiple electronic keyboards, thundered into Bristol yet again.
Maureen Nolan, one of four of the famous Irish singing sisters to play the role of Mrs Johnstone, first did so in 2007, and her voice, deep and soulful, is reminiscent of a sultry Sarah Vaughan in the slower ballads, with a jazzy, free feel to her singing, and an incredible accuracy on the longer notes. The role covers a woman aging from early twenties to mid-fifties, and Maureen, just past the upper end of this range, is completely convincing as an older mother looking back at the sad lives of her twins. Tracy Spencer, as Mrs Lyons, has an equally lovely voice, which only features in one main number, and I would love to hear her in her role as understudy to Mrs Johnstone.
Sean Jones as Mickey, the twin who stays at home, and Mark Hutchinson as Eddie, the twin given away to the posh Lyons family, have both inhabited these roles many times, in the West End and on tour, and they are a delight to watch, from the tender age of “nearly eight”, through the highly moving early teenage years where they are reunited in a touching moment of recognition which never fails to bring a tear to the eye, through to their falling out, and the pathos of the final scene when they find out they are brothers, and Mickey asks his mother poignantly, “why couldn’t you have given me away?”.
The ensemble cast, playing everyone from schoolchildren playing a playground game to unemployed workers singing in close, unaccompanied, harmony, works as a team to keep the momentum moving, with beautiful touches: effortlessly switching from posh public school headmaster to working class comprehensive teacher with a jacket removed and hair messed up, all in front of us and an early milkman openly admitting he has changed jobs and is now a gynaecologist.
Above and outside all of this, telling the story, in poetry, speech and song, with a crisp, clear, and wonderful tenor voice, is Kristofer Harding as the ever-present Narrator, part Mephistopheles, part Bogeyman, warning the characters of the consequences of their actions and keeping us updated on their progress, should we have any doubt.
Blood Brothers is a cracking good yarn, with twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat from the very beginning to the shocking end, and music to keep you singing for weeks afterwards, although quite how many times we hear the name Marilyn Monroe I cannot begin to guess. If you have seen the show before, treat yourself again, and if you have not seen it, please do: you will be thoroughly entertained. It’s at Bristol until Saturday and on tour until at least November.