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Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is at the Marlowe Theatre this week, bringing the long-running, popular musical to Kent for five days. A show that previously enjoyed an extensive London run and several UK tours, it is back on the road for 2023 with direction by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review the production and see for myself why people find this musical so emotional. I was even recommended a pack of tissues for the performance, something which hasn’t happened before!
About the show
Set in the 1950s, Blood Brothers centres on twin brothers who are separated at birth and grow up in completely contrasting households. Covering themes of class, superstition and the polarisation of wealth within communities, the musical is a piece of theatre which has real impact, thanks to Russell’s heartfelt score and the transparent picture of British society.
This particular production is incredibly raw and uses the set of memorable characters to showcase the harsh realities of growing up in different classes. Even though the show’s identity is heavily rooted in the 50s, its timeless themes continue to resonate with audiences today. It is known worldwide for the upsetting developments in its plot, but I was surprised to learn how funny it is in places. I didn’t expect there to be so much laughter and sadness rolled into one.
20+ years of life experiences
The musical covers an extensive period of time and showcases the brothers’ lifestyles at key moments in their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Featuring a cast of entirely adults, for the majority of the story adults play children. The acting definitely comes across as slightly too exaggerated in places, particularly in the case of the 7-8 year olds. In doing so the cast lean into the humorous elements of the story though, with the audience having an opportunity to laugh at their antics across the city. There is a dated playtime reference which wouldn’t be appropriate today, but through the lens of 50s Liverpool, leaving it in the material is appropriate for the time period.
Personally I prefer the section surrounding the teenage years, as it feels more realistic and provides an opportunity for us to get to know the characters better. Gemma Brodrick really shines as Linda in these moments, with her brilliant comedy skills providing some much needed light humour in a somewhat dark musical.
Recreation of Liverpool on stage
The city of Liverpool is at the centre of Blood Brothers’ image, with the production transporting audiences back to the city centre in the early 1950s. From Andy Walmsley’s set to the authentic accents and dialect, the Wirral is a focal part of the show. Making the material as representative of the local area and time period as possible has clearly been a priority.
The accents are incredibly thick throughout and whilst easy enough to follow within the adult parts, when combined with the speed of the childlike speech, at points it is a little difficult to understand what is being said. I think the authenticity is admirable though and outweighs any issues with the clarity of the dialogue.
Red brick housing forms the core of the set, with alternating set pieces representing different locations around the city centre. There is also a skyline backdrop on stage from the moment the show starts, bringing Liverpool to the forefront of people’s minds. At the end of act one some of the locations are left to the imagination as the set changes are a little behind the characters and their daily lives. It isn’t the case for long though with the quality of the set design reaching new heights and expanding to other locations in the second act.
Niki Colwell Evans steals the show as Mrs Johnstone. Their emotional performance is utterly captivating, with every note appearing effortless. It’s not an easy character to play as the weight of the world is on Mrs Johnstone’s shoulders, but the role seems to come so naturally to the performer, as they tell a story through music. From ‘Marilyn Monroe’ to the climatic ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, we are provided with so many fantastic vocal performances.
In addition, Danny Whitehead’s narration is extremely chilling and powerful. Their presence on stage is haunting, appearing on stage in key moments of the story and driving the themes of the piece. They were almost like the glue of the show, cleverly connecting all of the events of the time period together and adding drama and perspective to Russell’s work.
An emotional and heartbreaking show
With performances until Saturday, last minute tickets for this passionate and impactful show are available via The Marlowe Theatre’s website. If you like musical theatre and hard hitting plays, Blood Brothers would be perfect for you. With a strong score and memorable story, it is definitely a show that will stay with me for a long time.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*My ticket for Blood Brothers was gifted in exchange for a review.