“So, did y’hear the story of the Johnstone twins?
As like each other as two new pins.
Of one womb born, on the self same day.
How one was kept and one given away?”
So asks the Narrator in the opening moments of Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s iconic musical. While there’s a bleakness to the affair – the aforementioned Johnstone twins lay dead in the centre of the stage after all – there’s also a warm sense of familiarity as the audience are welcomed back to Edinburgh Playhouse. For those who have seen the musical before, this never truly goes away. And for the uninitiated, they quickly find their footing in the proceedings.
Anyone who is familiar with Russell’s classic tale of brotherhood and class set in industrial Liverpool will know exactly what to expect from this production. It’s the same story of Mickey and Eddie, twins born to a mother living on the breadline. With seven mouths already to feed, and fearing for the future, she gives one of the newborn twins away to a wealthy family so that he may at least have a childhood she can never provide. Over the course of the musical, Mickey and Eddie are reunited at various stages in their life – becoming best friends despite their social classes pulling them apart.
While this production doesn’t do anything particularly new with the material, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Young Mickey Johnstone is still decked out in his green, hole-ridden sweater-vest as he sits in the centre of the stage complaining about being only seven (when in fact, he’s nearly eight). He may still be flanked by the familiar terrace houses as Liverpool’s iconic Royal Liver building looms in the background. Yet it all fits together excellently. There’s a reason that this musical has endured for almost 40 years, and that’s because it’s a piece that is still as pertinent now as it was when it first debuted in 1983.
It’s the performances that make Blood Brothers. While promotional material initially promised the return of Lyn Paul as “the definitive Mrs Johnstone” in her final turn in the role, she has sadly had to bow out of performances in Edinburgh due to personal reasons. Fortunately, a more than equal replacement has been found in Amy Robbins, who previously played the role in the West End production. Robbins brings an incredible level of charisma and emotion to the role that is infectious. While there is softness to her voice that sometimes means she is lost in the ensemble numbers like Bright New Day, that doesn’t stop her from giving it her all. By the closing number she has the audience on their feet with applause.
Robbins is joined by a number of other familiar faces too with Alex Patmore, Joel Benedict, Danielle Corlass and Danny Taylor returning as Mickey, Eddie, Linda, and Sammy respectively. Corlass and Taylor in particular are clearly having a great time in their supporting roles, and they bring infinite levels of charm to their performances. Likewise Benedict brings a slight awkwardness and rigidity to Eddie that suits the character particularly well.
Ultimately, Patmore is who steals the show. He excellently captures the essence of Mickey at various stages in his life – hyperactive ruffian, awkward would-be lothario, and morbidly depressed former inmate. His portrayal of a post-prison Mickey who is reliant on antidepressants is genuinely heartbreaking to watch and a credit to the actor’s talents. He, alongside Corlass, expertly carry the musical in its final scenes to the inevitable conclusion.
Ultimately, directors Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson craft an excellent performance that, while never straying too far from the original, still manages to hit the necessary beats to deliver a stellar night of musical theatre.