Down here on the north Devon border there is not much choice of theatre unless you are prepared to travel many miles. I struck lucky to see that Blood Brothers was on the bill at the Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple, on my birthday. Promptly got two tickets (rather decent ones, actually) not sure of what bang I’d be getting for my bucks. I mean, Willy Russell is amazing but what calibre would this performance be? I had nasty visions of Flashdance endured at the Blackpool Winter Gardens whirling in my head, though I had since seen a rather better musical in the shape of Paint Your Wagon at the Everyman in Liverpool.
Russell, the Merseyside writer of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine has an intuitive way of presenting downtrodden women and Blood Brothers is no different. It is heartbreaking throughout but primarily when one sees yet another young woman ‘up the duff’, her future assuredly crap.
Blood Brothers was one of the longest-running musicals in the West End, ably produced and directed by Bill Kenwright, before it set off on tour; it has been massively popular. As the lady in the queue for the ladies’ loos – there is always a queue) said to me: “Who’d have thought something of this calibre would come to Barnstaple?” Who indeed?
The show is a ‘Liverpudlian folk opera’, a tale of two twins separated at birth to live very different lives, one poor, one posh, reunited later by a strange twist of fate. The script contains so many tugs on the heartstrings it is hard to know where to begin. A mother of too many children whose husband ups and leaves her in poverty. A woman unable to have children who is prepared to lie her way to getting someone else’s. Unemployment, depression, social divisions, all set against a backdrop of Liverpool’s iconic Royal Liver Building. Crucial to the tale is an unnerving ever-present and all-knowing narrator, chilling in tone, who my daughter found extremely menacing. He was meant to be.
In the version at Barnstaple, Lyn Paul played the key character, Mrs Johnstone. Her vocals were strong, powerful and outstanding; her acting is pretty decent, too. Lyn was a singer with the New Seekers and lead vocalist for this song. To be honest, I couldn’t fault the casting, nor the strength of class-based feeling the play evoked.
Could I get through it without shedding a tear? No. I held out until the end when Mickey’s depression got the better of me. I’d grown to like Mickey, a decent lad born into difficult circumstances (despite a later move to Skem – Skelmersdale – which is pretty grim) whose future/fate (prison, depression, losing the girl he loves) is sealed by his real brother, Sammy, who is a total hard case, and probably brain damaged.
The poignant question he asks his mother, why not me, why didn’t you give me away? hurts like hell.
Yet, it isn’t all doom and gloom, for there is a tremendous amount of humour within the show. We were gripped for the entire performance; despite being middle class, my sympathies were most certainly with the stricken Johnstones and I really, really wanted a happy ending.
Alas, for the poverty-stricken classes, it simply doesn’t happen. Russell was realistic to the last.