Blood Brothers

Hayes Theatre Co, February 10

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blood Brothers, the hit musical by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), premiered in Liverpool in 1983 then ran in London’s West End for 24 years.

Last staged professionally in Sydney in 1994, the show’s reputation and popularity goes before it – so much so that this new, small-scale production, produced by Enda Markey in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, extended its season before it even opened. Days after opening it was almost sold out.

Though there is room to plumb a deeper well of anger and emotion, it’s a lively, well-staged production with some lovely performances.

Set in Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of fraternal twins, separated at birth when their mother Mrs Johnstone can’t afford to keep them both. Persuaded by the well-to-do Mrs Lyons, who she cleans for, to secretly give her one of the babies, the boys grow up on different sides of the track but become best friends without knowing their true relationship. However, the class difference and their love of the same woman have tragic consequences.

Russell wrote the show as a furious response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative with an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies. Russell uses repetition in the score quite effectively though a Marilyn Monroe motif eventually feels over-worked.

Andrew Pole directs on an ingenious set by Anna Gardiner that swings open to reveal interiors, with the tight four-piece band led by Michael Tyack hidden backstage, while her bright costuming brings colour to the dark, depressing world she creates.

Helen Dallimore is a warm, vital Mrs Johnstone. She captures her resilience but could do more to convey the toll taken on her by the terrible knocks and stresses she endures – though her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True is heartbreaking.

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As the twins, who age from seven to young men, Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden give beautifully judged performances, managing to convey a convincing connection between them, despite being worlds removed.

It’s hard to play children without being gratingly twee, but Fox and Bowden, along with Christy Sullivan who plays their close friend Linda, do a terrific job here.

Fox exudes a knockabout, streetwise energy as Mickey, the youngest of the unruly, poverty-stricken Johnstone brood and his descent into depression is powerfully done. Bowden brings a gentle, earnest sweetness to Edward who is brought up by the posh Lyons family. Both are in great voice, and vocally suited to their characters.

Sullivan shines in a moving performance as Linda, the girl they both love, and the scenes between the three of them have a powerful dramatic and emotional force.

The scenes featuring the well-to-do Lyons played by Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lyons feel less authentic, though this is in large part to do with these characters being more sketchily written. But all the cast – which also includes Erin James and Jamie Kristian – work together well as a tight ensemble, while Michael Cormick is a suitably ominous presence as the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets, foreshadowing the tragedy like a Greek chorus, and sings with great assurance.

Lyrically and musically, Blood Brothers isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated of musicals but it has a gritty simplicity that goes straight to the heart, leaving many in the opening night audience in tears at the end.

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 15. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 15

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Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28