Venue: Sheffield Lyceum
The storyline is an effortless mix of epic Shakespearian love triangles, estranged families and premature death, combined with Thatcherite class conflict and a big dollop of overly-dramatic musical flamboyance.
In principle, Blood Brothers easily verges on the kitsch and predictable. But in performance, it is nothing short of wonderful.
Willy Russell’s beloved musical tells the tale of Liverpudlian Mrs Johnstone, financially crippled when her husband walks out on her, leaving seven children behind with twins on the way. When she discovers that her middle-class employer, Mrs Lyons, has been desperate to have a child for years with no success, a plan is reluctantly conceived – Mrs Lyons will pretend to be pregnant whilst her husband is away, and Mrs Johnstone will give one of her babies to Mrs Lyons, to be raised as her own.
As the twin boys grow older in separate households, the age-old nature over nurture principle becomes palpable. Mickey Johnstone is a loveable yet almost illiterate young boy who likes to play with toy guns with his reckless, bullying older brother, Sam. Edward Lyons is an immaculately dressed, perfectly spoken public-school boy who likes to read the dictionary. When their paths meet again, the result is a bout of happiness and friendship followed by fate-ridden tragedy.
Whilst such stereotypical class differences can seem contrived and somewhat vulgar to the audience, any traces of insincere moral themes are washed away by the consistently pitch-perfect musical score. The acclaimed Marilyn Monroe and Tell Me It’s Not True have a bittersweet Moulin Rouge-style, tragicomedy air to them, taking the audience from highs of euphoric frivolity to devastating reality within an instant.
But the outstanding scenes are the ones in which adult actors banter and bustle around the stage as five-year-old irreverent children, completely believable as young and reckless youths.
Sheffield Lyceum is staging a leg of the musical’s six month tour, complete with an obligatory C-list name. This time it’s X Factor’s Niki Evans – following in the footsteps of all four of the Nolan sisters – who shapes a memorable and emotional performance as Mrs Johnstone.
Russell’s seeming timeless story has retained a relevance and power since its 1988 debut, showcased flawlessly in the Lyceum’s beautiful main house. But it’s questionable whether the shock and pathos of the plot will stay as fierce in the audience’s mind as our social and political climate continues to change, similar to Shelagh Delaney’s superb yet finite A Taste of Honey. Let us hope so.