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The Theatreguide.London Review

Blood Brothers

Phoenix Theatre     August 1988 - November 2012

Willy Russell's sentimental and melodramatic musical concerns a poor single mother of twins who is talked into giving one of her infant sons to a richer woman to raise. Inevitably the boys meet; they become friends, and then rivals, and then tragic enemies. 

I'm not giving anything away - to stress the inevitability, the play begins with their dead bodies, and then flashes back to show how they got there.

The show has a curious history. It first opened in London in the early 1980s and had a modest run, and then was revived a few years later, and became a smash hit.

I didn't like the first version, because the general tone was dark and unpleasant. There's a narrator figure, who keeps commenting on the doom-filled inevitability, and the first version of the musical stressed that aspect, so he was the voice of God's wrath repeatedly damning the poor mother for her sin.

The revival just changed the focus and tone, and that changed everything. Now it is clear from the start that the mother is the heroine, doing everything for the best of motives. And, while the chorus is still there to remind us of the dark ending, the emphasis is on her happiest and most hopeful moments along the way.

The change strengthens the show in two ways. First, it's a lot more pleasant to sit through. And of course, luring us into this happy mood makes the tragic ending more of a shock and thus more moving.

There's a certain amount of audience manipulation about this, but what matters is that it works. Audiences repeatedly respond to the ending with tears and cheers.

Russell is the author of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, which is another way of saying he is really good at capturing the experience of working class women. Some of the finest moments in Blood Brothers are the little ones, like her pleasure at being rehoused in a nicer council flat, or the thrill of being invited out dancing by the milkman.

Russell isn't all that bad as a songwriter, either. At least he's learned one thing from Andrew Lloyd Webber - if you repeat a melody often enough, the audience will begin to recognise it and think they like it.

If by chance you don't enjoy the show, you can amuse yourself by counting the number of times the lyric about Marilyn Monroe is repeated.

Gerald Berkowitz

OCTOBER 2002: Of all the long-running hits we've revisited recently, Blood Brothers is the one that most shows its age, though in an unexpected way. It is still a crowd-pleaser, still a powerful musical drama, but its tone has shifted, probably as the gradual result of small changes with each new cast.

As I explained in my original review, Willy Russell's musical first opened in the early 1980s for a short run, and then was revived in a new production in 1988, and it is that one that is still running.

The basic story, of a poor woman who gives away one of her newborn twins and of the tragedy that results, was very dark in the first production. But the revival, while retaining the dark story, managed to balance its bleakness with lighter moments that both made the show more entertaining and made the ending more powerful.

But today the show resembles the first production more than the second, with an unrelenting gloom throughout.

Linda Nolan (of the Nolan Sisters) plays the mother without the cheery perkiness that her predecessors had, and thus doesn't really come into her own until the powerful finale, while Philip Stewart as the doom-laden narrator is more intense than others who have played the role.

Stephen Palfreman is excellent as the twin who grows up poor, providing most of the production's light moments as he captures the spirit of the happy eight-year-old and the bashful adolescent on his way toward the beaten-down adult, though Mark Hutchinson is a bit too wooden as the rich brother.

As the adoptive mother, Louisa Lydell has been directed to play the Wicked Witch of the West from the start, much like the actress in that role in the unsuccessful original production, which gives her no place to go but bizarre extremes as her character is driven mad by fear and guilt. Louise Clayton is sweet and attractive as the girl in the inevitable triangle.

Blood Brothers still works, and audiences still rise spontaneously to standing ovations at the end. But much of what made this revival more successful than the original is fading away, which may bode ill for its word-of-mouth future. Certainly the Friday night performance I saw would have been half-empty without a couple of coach parties of schoolkids.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Blood Brothers - Phoenix Theatre 1988-2012