Review: ‘Blood Brothers’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome, October 2014

A show guaranteed to leave you emotionally crippled, ‘Blood Brothers’ has been running for decades and – judging by last night’s audience reaction – will be running for many more.

Having seen this twice before, both times with Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone, my expectations were high. Without a doubt, the Narrator (Kristofer Harding) was the standout performance; he was brutal as the conscience, but rivetingly emotional in the final scenes, and his voice…he was the star of the show in my eyes, his tones moving between pity, fury and mocking with ease. Mickey (Sean Jones) and Eddie (Joel Benedict) were flawless, growing up before our eyes as two men who should have everything to gain from knowing one another but instead take a wrong turning and lose sight of the other.

I do, however, have a bug bear. Despite all the outstanding performances, one jarred with me, and that was Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone. When singing normally and acting some of the happier parts, she was fine. But then came this bizarre attempt at growling sections of her songs, her comedy screams when being attacked by Mrs Lyons and searching for Mickey, and more irritatingly her interactions with the audience at the beginning of the second half. I think I’ve been spoiled seeing Niki Evans twice; she was sublime and I felt everything she portrayed personally and more. If I was to pinpoint a moment that exemplified how I felt, it was the finale. I was tearful during ‘Tell me it’s not true’, and Mrs Johnstone was devastating in her initial rendition and I felt bad for doubting her; then it got to thirty seconds before the end of the song and I have no idea what was being attempted, but some form of noise came from Nolan in what I suspect was a moment of dramatic flair, but actually burst the emotional balloon that had been filled from before, leaving a decidedly deflated feeling. But then there were other times when this power was needed in her vocals and I got the feeling she flaked out of using that power that she clearly had but hadn’t refined, instead going a bit whispy in her singing.

However, it is easy to be negative about something, and overall I did love this show yet again as it stole my heart and broke it expertly. Particularly at the end, I felt the tragedy of Mr and Mrs Lyons, a couple who just wanted to do the best by their family, and yes Mrs Lyons went a terrible way around getting this life, but I’d struggle to say it was for any other reason than love. I think it’s appropriate, really, that Linda falls into obscurity during the final song; not only as a cause of the situation through the ‘light romance’, but also because the grief of three parents far outshone her own.

It’s also interesting how, despite being a musical of the 1950s, everything still rings alarmingly true today; class divides, educational advantages, and of course familial issues that have no right and easy answer. I think, particularly at last night’s performance, I felt that final one, that idea of family being all and yet being beyond our control despite how much we invest in it. It was chilling.

‘Blood Brothers’ continues its tour around the UK, and it may well just be me that has issues with the current Mrs Johnstone, so I do urge you to share in the heartbreak, because ultimately it reminds us to take every opportunity and love our community, whether they be blood family or otherwise.