Blood Brothers UK Tour – Grand Opera House York

on stage group image of full cast, mrs johnstone kneeling on floor between bodies of two brothers with cast stood behind her
Image Credits: Blood Brothers UK (Press)

[GIFTED] Press tickets #gifted by Grand Opera House York in exchange for review. You can catch Blood Brothers at Grand Opera House York until Saturday 2nd November, before it continues on to other venues around the UK. If you enjoy this post, you may like my other chronic illness-friendly reviews too!

Expectations: 4/5

Reality: 5/5

Chronic Illness-Friendly: 2/5

Blood Brothers has always had a place in my heart. From playing various roles myself and critically analysing the production for my GCSE drama exam, to appreciating the show on a much deeper level as I’ve aged and matured as an audience member, I firmly believe that Willy Russell’s musical is one of the all-time greats. As a production, it is utterly incomparable to any other show I’ve seen.

The performance begins with a glimpse into the devastating final scene, two bodies being mournfully covered up and carried away by policemen, before the onlooking Narrator sombrely addresses the audience and takes us right back to the beginning of the story: the story of a mother, Mrs Johnstone, coerced into giving one of her twin sons away to Mrs Lyons, the childless housewife who employs her as a cleaner.

With both mothers haunted by the magnitude of their actions, they do everything in their power to raise the two boys away from each other- something which in theory shouldn’t be difficult, given the sheer contrast between their social classes: one family housed in council accommodation, frequently visited by the police and bailiffs, and the other in an affluent neighbourhood where money is no object. However, when the paths of the two boys, Mickey and Eddie, do cross, they instantly bond and declare themselves ‘Blood Brothers’, despite having no knowledge whatsoever that they’re genuinely related.

The thing about Blood Brothers is that it really puts you through the wringer emotionally. The first act, despite the harrowing storyline, is full of incredible moments of humour. The show insightfully portrays each of the characters’ unique quirks, particularly in capturing the childhood innocence of Micky, Eddie and their friends as they grow up playing their imaginary games in the streets together. The dialogue and staging are sharp and witty, with each humorous incident being readily rewarded with laughter and applause from the audience.

By complete contrast, the majority of the second act is almost painfully tension-building. We’re never allowed the luxury of forgetting that something awful is going to happen, with no real clues into what that something may be. With increasing urgency, we’re forced to acknowledge how the two boys’ social backgrounds and upbringings have dictated their life choices, as have their mothers’ own exhibitions of guilt and pain. And even as things begin to unravel completely out of control, the defining moment of the musical will (to those who haven’t seen the show before) shock you to the core.

pippa's signed programme opened on cast pages of mickey and eddieSo naturally, to pull off a story of this magnitude, you’re going to need a stellar cast. And my goodness, stellar is an understatement for this particular team. Under Bob Tomson’s direction, Alexander Patmore’s portrayal of Mickey is one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. He managed to convincingly morph from a rogue seven year old full of beans and unrelenting curiosity about the world around him, to a moody and hormonal teen unsure of how to possibly express his feelings to those who care to listen, to a harrowed man suffering mercilessly with the weight of the world on his shoulders, all in the space of three hours. It’s such a glorious role, and Patmore really did it justice with his portrayal.

The evolving onstage relationship between Patmore and Joel Benedict as Eddie was similarly remarkable. Benedict really made the most of some iconic moments of humour in Eddie’s character, whilst also successfully representing his own, more subtle, inner battle with his identity and circumstances. Intertwined with Danielle Corlass’ key role as the witty and immediately likeable Linda, and the small but incredibly talented ensemble, there was never a moment where the performance lagged.

Mrs Lyons, another deeply complex role portrayed by Chloe Taylor, was also outstanding: in particular, her expression of the desperate need to be a mother and raise a son, only to be increasingly replaced with her own guilt and fear that their family’s secret would be revealed at any moment. I particularly appreciated the metaphorical interactions between Mrs Lyons and The Narrator, a role I believe is incredibly underrated. All Robbie Scotcher had to do was walk on to the stage and immediately the audience were gripped by his presence. The creative decision to use The Narrator to facilitate so many key moments of the story, both explicit and implied, is one of the things that really makes the show such a unique spectacle.

And of course, we can’t talk about Blood Brothers without talking about Lyn Paul, the most iconic Mrs Johnstone in the history of the show. She has truly made the role her own, and has an understanding and connection to the world-weary mother simply trying to do right by her children that’s visible for all to see. Tell Me It’s Not True is, in my opinion, one of the most emotive closing songs in musical theatre, and had the whole audience in bits even before it became clear that Paul herself had tears falling down her face.

That’s the thing about this show. It’s so cleverly written that it’ll have you really feeling for and connecting with various characters, only to force you to watch their worlds crumble around them. Blood Brothers tackles some incredibly heavy themes: social class division, gun culture, complex family relationships and more, and the result is a simply unforgettable three hours of theatre. I think it’s safe to say that this production won over the hearts of the audience and then proceeded to smash them into tiny pieces. And quite frankly, it was a privilege.

Chronic Illness-Friendly Review

Now then. I think we’ve made it clear above that I adore this show and would urge anybody to see it. However, I do have to emphasise that this production is not kind to those with any kind of noise and light sensitivity, and it’s one that’s particularly debilitating for those affected by adrenaline. But before we get to that, a note about the show’s content…

[SPOILER] One of the key elements of the story is Mickey’s depression, arising during his years in prison as an adult. The show takes quite a radical approach to the antidepressants he was prescribed, holding these entirely responsible for what was portrayed as him losing his sense of self and becoming something of a zombie, speaking and moving excrutiatingly slowly and being completely disconnected to the world around him. Each and every loved one attempts to force Mickey to stop taking the drugs in order to become ‘himself’ again, further demonising the idea of taking medication for mental illness. To me, this seemed like quite an imbalanced, overexaggerated stance to take: yes, it’s true that drugs of this nature come with side effects and can well have an adverse impact on individuals, especially in heavy doses and when used in the criminal justice system, but nobody should be made to feel guilty or less themselves for seeking treatment for mental health issues. Hopefully, the interpretation made in this performance was simply representative of the era of time it was written (the 1960s), and such assumptions are much less prevalent today.

Moving away from content and on to noise and sound effects, it’s important to acknowledge that many scenes are punctuated with what I describe as ‘sharp’ noises: something which are rather problematic for me and likely are for many others too. These noises range from unexpected comical head banging against walls, fingers being trapped in desks and toy pellets being shot at targets, before progressing into things more sinister in later scenes. Often, you simply can’t see or predict these things coming in advance, so it’s important to be aware that they’re going to catch you out and it may well be uncomfortable.

Lighting effects are used creatively throughout the show by Nick Richings, and whilst they’re not as debilitating, there are a few moments of discomfort. The very first musical number, Marylyn Monroe, features a comical disco ball which can be dazzling when it catches the lights: beautiful, but not particularly comfortable on sensitive eyeballs. Similarly, there are dramatic changes in lighting colour and intensity, such as the revolving spotlight effects on Mrs Lyons as she feels herself breaking down, and the dangerous red flooding the stage as Mad Man begins. However, these moments are more infrequent than the noise threats described above, with only minimal lighting and special effects required for the majority of the scenes.

The take-home point to make about this production from a chronic illness perspective, however, is that it can and will cause adrenaline to surge through your body. I’ve seen this show five times now, I know exactly what’s coming and what will happen, and yet it still catches me out and scares me to death. The show is so effective in building tension and making you jump that it can and will trigger a fight or flight response. And if you too have a condition which means adrenaline can exacerbate your symptoms, it’s definitely something to bear in mind with this one. Just ask the lady in front of me who jumped about 5ft out of her seat at each dramatic turn.

You know me: if a show is outstanding, I’m tempted to encourage you to see it anyway and proceed with caution. However, given the jumpy and explosive nature of this one, and how important these elements are to the storyline, I’ll try and be responsible. For those of you who struggle with adrenaline, make your decision on whether to see the performance carefully. Health comes first, it always should, but my goodness, I’m sat here writing this review feeling the aftermath of this show deeply today, and for me, it was still totally worth it.

pippa's hand holding up blood brothers programme and ticket, with theatre in background

Intrigued? You can catch Blood Brothers at Grand Opera House York until Saturday 2nd November, before it continues on to other venues around the UK. If you enjoyed this post, you may like my other chronic illness-friendly reviews too!

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