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Review: Blood Brothers Is A Triumph At Eastbourne Congress Theatre

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Forty years after Willy Russell’s tragic working-class tale of the Johnstone twins opened in the West End it’s still as relevant and captivating today  

Some things never age. Barbie. Joan Collins. Ray-Ban’s Aviator Classic sunglasses– and Blood Brothers. Forty years after Barbara Dickson struggled to get a stage door to open in the Lyric Theatre on opening night, and had to rush round the side to a standing ovation, the multi-award-winning musical is still bringing audiences to its feet.

Gritty, epic, but with the sweetest melodies and catchiest lyrics, Willy Russell’s working-class tale of trying to survive the drudgery is still as relevant today as it was back then in 1983, amidst the chaos following Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory at the polls.

That’s because at its heart is a simple story. It would be a Greek tragedy if it wasn’t set in Liverpool – which makes it a Scouse tragedy – of a penniless single mum of seven who discovers she’s pregnant again.

Scouse Tragedy

‘So, did y' hear the story of the Johnstone twins? As like each other as two new pins,’ asks the narrator with a social conscious – played brilliantly by Danny Whitehead. He lays out the story in bleak fashion from the off – even showing us the bodies so we know there’s never going to be a happy ending, and pointing the blame at those he thinks are responsible.

The tale of twins separated at birth, and who grow up on the opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with tragic consequences, has captivated audiences around the world, racking up 10,000 performances in London’s West End and earning the nickname the ‘Standing Ovation Musical’ as it always brings audiences jumping to their feet.

But the performances are as sharp as ever, bringing Russell’s tight script – dripping with scouse idioms and dialect - and emotive songs such as Marilyn Monroe, I’m Not Saying A Word and Tell Me It’s Not True to life.

It helps to have an X Factor finalist in the cast, but Niki Colwell Evans isn’t just a songbird. As the twins’ mother Mrs Johnstone she has big shoes to fill – after Barbara Dickson, Petula Clarke, Carole King, Lyn Paul, Linda Nolan and Helen Reddy have all played the role.

Evans does it so well, wringing her hands on her apron, begging the milkman for one more week to pay the bill, and living constantly on edge, waiting for the bailiffs to repossess all her furniture that she bought on the ‘never never’ from the catalogues, that we understand – even empathise – when she’s persuaded to hand over one of her newborn twins to her employer Mrs Lyons.

The twins become best friends, then blood brothers, all the while unaware of their true relationship 

Yes, she has doubts, she even changes her mind, but in the end, she tells the desperate Mrs Lyons: ‘Choose which one you want.’ She does so out of love, for she wants the best for her son, hoping he’ll receive all the things she can’t give him.

She is left raising Mickey, played by Sean Jones who is charmingly boisterous as a mischievous seven-year-old (who’s nearly eight) who becomes friends with Eddie, the posh boy with ‘the soft accent’ from the big house at the top of the hill.

The twins become best friends, then blood brothers, all the while unaware of their true relationship, but it becomes difficult to separate them despite the best efforts of the increasingly paranoid Mrs Lyons.

Nature Vs Nurture

In a powerful show of nature vs nurture, we follow the twins through their hormone-ranging teen years, hanging out with their childhood friend Linda, through to adulthood. In recession-hit Britain, Mickey and Linda have a quickie wedding after an unplanned pregnancy, while Eddie goes off to university.

The twist is brutal and heartbreaking. Russell, who also wrote Shirley Valentine, knows how to bring an audience to its knees before forcing them on their feet for a standing ovation

He makes friends with the gifted, wealthy kids just as Eddie is made redundant from the local cardboard box factory, and turns to crime to make ends meet. He’s caught and sent to prison, where he becomes addicted to pills, as Eddie becomes a councillor: powerful and rich.

The twist is brutal and heartbreaking. Russell, who also wrote Shirley Valentine, knows how to bring an audience to its knees before forcing them on their feet for that legendary standing ovation.

It’s a cautionary tale. Who hasn’t wondered how their life would have turned out if they’d grown up on the right side of the tracks with a wealthy family, good education and every opportunity afforded to them? Here, in visceral technicolour, is the answer.

Blood Brothers has endured for a reason. It’s an incredible piece of musical theatre that will leave you reaching for the tissues and humming the songs long after you’ve left the theatre.

The cast had to take three final bows on stage at the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne because the audience refused to stop clapping and cheering. Catch it before it ends on Saturday – then look out for the next tour to watch it again and again.

Tickets start from £22 for Thursday night and £25 for Friday and Saturday night.


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