Phoenix Theatre, London
4th Oct 2012
In just a few weeks the striking backdrop of the Liverpool skyline will come down from the beautiful Phoenix Theatre as this production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothersdeparts from the West End; and a sad day that will be, as this cast have put on a superb production of the tear-jerking “story of the Johnstone twins”. The show is of course intrinsically linked with a particular place and time – Liverpool, and the toughest days of the 1980s – but this production truly shows it off as a modern classic, by maintaining this heritage yet avoiding any sense of being dated. There is still freshness here and, to invoke a horribly over-analysed concept, relevancy; and no need to take my word for it – just listen to the raucous, enraptured reaction of the hordes of schoolchildren at this midweek matinée. Much of the appeal lies in the blend of bitter realism and stylised superstition which is kept in perfect harmony: although “harmonious” seems an inappropriate word to choose for a drama that pulls you in so many directions. It is harsh but warm; heart-wrenching but funny; bleak but uplifting; at the end of the first act the girls around me were bopping in their seats to the tune of Bright New Day, yet by the end of the second the tears were steaming down their cheeks. The production delivers in every area.
Blood Brothers is nothing without its perfect Mrs Johnstone, and this run gives Vivienne Carlyle her turn to join the lengthy list of stars who have taken on the role, from Petula Clark to Mel C. Carlyle gives a strong and soulful vocal performance as her rich tones bring deep emotion to the lyrics, and her ‘Mrs J’ is likeable and pitiable in equal measures. At times there are some odd vowel sounds, when the mostly-perfect Scouse accent doesn’t quite gel with Carlyle’s singing style as she negotiates the break in the voice: yet this is really a minor niggle. The trio of Mark Rice-Oxley (Mickey), Paul Christopher (Eddie) and Louise Clayton (Linda) work together with confidence and ease, mastering the range of child to adult which these characters demand. Rice-Oxley in particular steals the show, bringing the audience from hysterical laughter as the cheeky, scruffy schoolboy and awkward teenager, to gut-wrenching sympathy and edge-of-the-seat desperation as the older, embittered Mickey. Michael Southern is solid in his supporting role of Sammy, but somewhat less successful at the tricky task of, as an adult actor, playing a child; however, the problem lies in aesthetics more than anything as Southern simply looks a little too old to pull off the portrayal of a young boy in quite the same way as other cast members.
The direction of Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright emphasises the underlying themes of desperation and paranoia which pervade the tale of Mrs Johnstone, through the Narrator’s constant yet seemingly invisible presence in the action, as the figure of Philip Stewart lingers at the edge of the set or at an upper window. His powerful voice and at times menacing performance reminds the audience constantly that this is a tale heading for tragedy. Designer Marty Flood highlights this mood without it becoming overblown and without breaking the sense of truth in this piece. As the burning red light of Madman cuts into the realism of the Town Hall chamber, the show lurches from stylised rage to something far more ‘real’: the audience know with a jolt that the inevitably tragic ending is really about to happen.
This production builds and builds as it continues, and the electricity at the explosive climax is palpable. As the last verse of Tell Me It’s Not True crescendos and the band and voices swell together, so do the audience’s emotions, and many a tear-stained face emerged from the Phoenix Theatre. Willy Russell has said that the show “relies on that primal, ageless universal thing of “I’m going to tell you a story”” and it is this strong storytelling, with its pure truth and emotion, that keeps audiences coming back for more.