Review: Blood Brothers, Sunderland Empire, until Saturday, December 2
Musicals aren't usually known for their Shakespearean levels of tragic storytelling.
But then Blood Brothers is as far removed from the froth and frippery often associated with the genre as you can get.
That’s thanks to the fact it’s from the pen of Willy Russell and it’s got all the trademarks of the playwright’s tales: strong central female character - check. Class divide - check. Northern grit - check.
This is a musical with a real tale to tell, one of twins, separated at birth. One will be raised in a blue collar background, while the other enjoys the trappings of middle class.
It’s a musical I’ve seen many times before but, testament to the strength of its narrative, it’s one that grips you each time.
Donning the apron as the twins’ torn mother this time is former New Seekers singer Lyn Paul.
Hailed as ‘the definitive Mrs Johnstone’, she’s returned to the role 20 years after her debut to mark the production’s 30th anniversary and boy did she live up to her star billing.
She’s utterly believable as the single Scouse mum struggling to make ends meet as she raises her ever-increasing brood. Swiftly after her husband’s departure, she finds out she’s fallen pregnant with twins and is forced to make the unimaginable decision to give one away for financial reasons.
Though the story is strong, this is still a musical at heart and Mrs Johnstone’s solo numbers such as Marilyn Monroe, Easy Terms and the devastatingly beautiful Tell Me It’s Not True pack a real emotional punch.
She’s joined on stage by a talented troupe, none more so than the twins, played to brilliant effect by Sean Jones as Mickey and Mark Hutchinson as Eddie.
Sean, in particular, is captivating to watch as he perfectly embodies a snotty, care-free seven-year-old through to Mickey’s awkward teenage years and as an adult where the light of his character has been snuffed out as his life spirals out of control.
These are characters in which you can’t help but emotionally invest and it’s heart-breaking to see Mickey transform from a joyous, toy gun-toting scamp into a broken jailbird who’s reliant on drugs.
It’s this stark contrast which brings a brilliant balance of comedy and pathos to the production. You almost forget that he and Mark are grown men as they bound around the stage as knee-stained seven-year-olds, hockling at each other and playing pranks. There’s plenty of laugh-out-loud scenes in these early days, with Mickey’s rib-tickling rhymes as he tries to out-smart big brother Sammy, played powerfully by Daniel Taylor, and impress main squeeze Linda, played with real warmth by Danielle Corlass.
As the years go on, the twins’ divisions deepen and while Eddie has the straight back of a pillar in the community, Mickey’s shoulders seem stooped and heavy with the burden of life. This is physical acting at its finest.
It’s this divide which leads to a heart-wrenching dénouement which elicited the biggest standing ovation I’ve seen at the Empire in months.
Just make sure to pack a hankie: in true Shakespearean style, they don’t live happily ever after.