Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers stopped in Glasgow this week as part of a nationwide tour. It has been a West End regular since 1983 and has a strong heritage as one of only three musicals to surpass the 10,000-performance mark on the London stage.
Affectionately dubbed the ‘Standing Ovation Musical’, Russell’s masterpiece tells the story of Mickey and Eddie – fraternal twins who were tragically separated at birth. Their mother, Mrs Johnstone, was unable to cope with the financial burden of two more mouths to feed as a single mother with an already overcrowded home. Reluctantly, Mrs. Johnstone agrees to let the wealthy and prestigious Mrs. Lyons take Eddie as her own son, as she couldn’t conceive of herself. The two women swear never to tell the boys the truth, but after a chance meeting, the boys become best friends and swear to be “blood brothers” forever. As the story unfolds, with Mickey struggling and Eddie thriving on his privilege, the two mothers fight to clear their conscience and keep their secret buried forever. But they also have to face the consequences of their decision.
The musical numbers may be less powerful than some of the caps from traditional musical performances, but history is clearly the strength of this production. Blood Brothers very clearly addresses the age-old debate about the impact of the environment and different classes on life’s opportunities. Both boys are stereotypical about their family background. Mickey is much wiser on the streets and “rough and ready” by nature. He struggles with school and tries to stay on the right track to avoid following in the footsteps of his wayward older brother Eddie. But he also has to face the prejudices of others. At one poignant moment, Mickey and Eddie were caught doing some nonsense by the local cop. However, the different treatment of the police officers towards the two families highlighted the fact that even when they were children, they were treated differently due to their perceived origins. The twins’ contrasting life continues into adulthood where Mickey struggles with unemployment, relationship challenges, and mental health as Eddie continues to thrive in his education and eventual career path. Their lives couldn’t be more shockingly different and despite being set in the 1980s, there are plenty of references that will resonate with audiences today.
The same actors play their characters from the age of seven until adulthood. Their over-the-top characterizations of playful toddlers and hormonal teens made audiences laugh with a quick-witted script and fabulous comedic timing from the cast. However, the narrator’s character made sure that the feeling of impending doom was present between the scenes and, despite the laughs, built the suspense until the shocking and emotional final ending.
It may have been set in the 1980s, but Blood Brothers still has an important story to tell about the division of classes and the impact on life’s opportunities. A very enjoyable, moving and stimulating tale that has truly earned its place as a West End classic