Blood Brothers

Book, music and lyrics by Willy Russell
Empire, Sunderland

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You know it's something special when a show that's been running for twenty years and which has been playing in the West End and touring for much of that time still gets a standing ovation from a packed house in a 2,000-seater theatre. It's even more impressive that this is not the first time it has played the Empire: this is its second visit in three years.

Looking at a show like this does make a reviewer's job easier, however. You don't have to review the show - everything that could possibly be said about it has been, whether it's LondonNet's "a simplistic slice of social comment" or Time Out's "grand ambitious melodrama, lined with sentiment and memorable songs." - but simply comment on the performances.

But - make no mistake: this is a great musical. Yes, it teeters on the edge of sentimentality, but it doesn't go over. Yes, it has a decidedly left-wing slant, but when was that a dramatic criticism? Yes, some of the characters are stock, but hey, what about the three captains in Henry V? Yes, many of the tunes are what Russell himself calls "hummable", but then so are many written by Gershwin, Porter, Puccini , Verdi....

To the performances!

Linda Nolan plays Mrs Johnstone with gusto and if her accents slips from Scouse to Irish... well, as my landlady in Belfast said many years ago, Liverpool is the capital of Ireland. She does have a tendency to rather obviously gather her strength for the big finish in some of the songs but there is a playfulness in Marilyn Monroe and a depth of feeling in Tell me It's Not True which more than make up for it.

The latter, however, does exemplify the only major criticism I have of the production: as it starts, both at the opening and at the end, impact is lost through far too much over-engineering. A touch of reverb, perhaps, but she shouldn't sound as though she's singing in a cathedral. And as for the poor Narrator... Keith Burns was often unintelligible because of the amount of completely unnecessary reverb and echo which bedevilled not only his singing but also - and why, God and the sound engineer only know - some of his speech. I do agree with Time Out that the piece is essentially a melodrama, but surely there is no need to hammer the fact home by trying to make his voice dsound like something out of a bad horror movie?

As the two brothers, Sean Jones (Mickey) and John Cusworth (Eddie) - are nicely contrasted and remain totally believable throughout, their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, both vocal and physical, developing and maturing as they grow older.

As Mrs Lyons, Kim Bretton manages to evoke sympathy for a very selfish woman whilst Tim Churchill is convincing in what is effectively the "straight man" part. As for Michael Southern's Sammy, we've seen him wandering the streets, drunk and looking for trouble, on many a weekend night. Another convincing performance.

But for me, the real star of the show was Nikki Davis-Jones (Linda). Her body language, movement, facial expression and voice - at seven, fourteen, eighteen and as an adult - were completely right. With Jones and Cusworth we were always conscious that here we had two adults playing children or teenagers (as we are, for example, in Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills), but not with Davis-Jones: she was a seven year old and - as one who has spent much of his career teaching girls of this age, I feel I am qualified to pontificate here - she very definitely was a fourteen year old! She only graduated from Laine Theatre Arts in 2000, so she is in the very early stages of what promises to be a very successful career.

Blood Brothers has stood the test of time. Melodrama or no, it still has the power to move and, with a cast such as this one, it is easy to see why it continues to tour, attract big audiences - and get a standing ovation!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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