JOYCE MCMILLAN on BLOOD BROTHERS at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 26.6.13.
4 stars ****
IT’S 30 YEARS, now, since Willy Russell’s smash-hit musical Blood Brothers first made its way from Liverpool into London’s West End; and on a quiet summer night in a half-empty Playhouse, it comes to us increasingly like a message from another world, one in which Britain still had a vibrant working-class culture, and in which writers like Russell still cared enough about class divisions to weave around them a whole people’s opera, about a working-class heroine – Mrs. Johnstone – who gives away one of her twin babies to her posh employer, Mrs. Lyons, because she already has too many mouths to feed.
Yet if the postwar world in which the play is set seems increasingly distant, it’s still difficult not to be moved by the sheer passion of the story, and its tragic momentum. This veteran Bill Kenwright production – with its twinkling Liverpool skyline, and its witty evocation both of slum streets and of a modern Sixties housing estate – offers a strikingly heavy-handed treatment of the story’s elements of superstition and the supernatural; Tracy Spencer’s Mrs. Lyons often appears as a Disney-style wicked witch, in pools of jagged blue-grey light.
Yet with the lovely Maureen Nolan making the part of Mrs. Johnstone her own, and singing powerfully throughout, the story is always in safe hands; although at the end, I found myself weeping as much for the Britain that could produce such a story, as for the Johnstone twins themselves, victims of a kind of social division that seems small and domestic, compared with the huge inequalities of wealth that now shape our world.