REVIEW: Blood Brothers (Orchard Theatre, Dartford)

Blood Brothers is one of those musicals that is a regular feature on the touring circuit, yet has somehow managed to elude Mummy for years. Mrs Mummy saw it years ago and, despite being notoriously dead inside, remembers it as being a real tear-jerker. So Mummy was delighted when the opportunity arose to review the press performance at the Orchard Theatre.

Blood Brothers tells the tale of two brothers secretly separated at birth, brought up in two very different families and eventually reunited in tragic circumstances. Mummy went in knowing very little else about the story and was hopeful that Blood Brothers would give a more gritty, rounded perspective on the trauma of separating birth families than the rose-tinted adoption narrative that permeates popular culture. She was consequently a bit disappointed to discover that it’s just another story that uses the separated twins trope to explore issues of class (rather like The Prince and The Pauper but with the addition of a blood relationship). And, in its own way (and probably completely unintentionally) it still conveys a somewhat skewed message about the use of adoption for social engineering.

The story starts at the end. We know from the outset that the Johnstone twins are doomed to die. We then circle back to find out how this story began. Working class Liverpudlian Mrs Johnstone (Lyn Paul) already has seven children when she discovers she is pregnant with twins. She is the cleaner for Mrs Lyons (Chloe Taylor) who is unable to conceive and has been thinking about adopting, but her husband wants a child of his ‘own’. Barely able to feed one additional mouth, let alone two, Mrs Johnstone is persuaded by Mrs Lyons that she should give up one of her babies to Mrs Lyons, who will pretend that she too is pregnant. Assured that she will see her son every day during work, Mrs Johnstone reluctantly agrees. When the babies are born, Mrs Johnstone tries to back out, but Mrs Lyons reminds her that she swore upon the Bible, and so Mrs Lyons takes home one child, whom she names Edward. Soon, threatened by Mrs Johnstone’s presence in her home, Mrs Lyons fires her from her cleaning job and, playing upon her superstitious nature, warns her that twins who have been separated will die if they ever discover the secret.

These early scenes are truly heartbreaking. They’re played brilliantly by both Paul and Taylor, particularly the moment where Mrs Johnstone turns her back while Mrs Lyons chooses which baby to take. This was the one moment where Mummy was really moved, and which she felt would resonate strongly with everyone involved in adoption today. As the story moves on, we see how Edward (Joel Benedict) and brother Mickey (Alexander Patmore) have very different childhood experiences, despite living just a few streets away. Yet somehow they are drawn to one another and develop a close friendship. Threatened again, Mrs Lyons convinces her husband to move to the countryside, parting Mickey and Eddie (as he has come to be known) once more. But, seemingly destined to be together, the twins are reunited when the Johnstones are relocated to the same area. But as they grow up, they grow further apart, with Eddie going from boarding school to university, eventually becoming a Councillor, while Mickey ends up in prison. Finally, shared feelings for childhood friend Linda (Danielle Corlass) tear the brothers apart, resulting in a showdown with deadly consequences.

Lyn Paul and the cast of Blood Brothers

The cast are fantastic, with Paul’s Mrs Johnstone a particular highlight. She sings the role superbly, and powerfully conveys the angst of a mother who loses both her sons (one twice over). Even from the very top of the circle, it was impossible not to feel her pain. Patmore is a convincing Mickey, from age 7 (almost 8!) right up to adulthood, complemented by Corlass as his friend, and later wife, and Daniel Taylor as older brother Sammy. Tim Churchill (understudying Robbie Scotcher) is also a very effective narrator, drawing things together and powerfully driving forward the narrative.

Benedict is great as Eddie and gets a lot of laughs as the little posh boy who willingly shares his sweets with the scallies on the street, enjoying the novelty of associating with such ‘smashing’ people. And this is where Mummy feels that the narrative of Blood Brothers falls down. The working class characters have depth, while the rich family are caricatures. Although this works as a piece of entertainment, and certainly feels just as relevant today as ever when it comes to commentary on class, it doesn’t sit well from a contemporary adoption perspective. Mickey is the one who feels all the pain. Even in the moment before the two brothers die, it’s Mickey who is aggrieved by what has happened, asking Mrs Johnstone why she didn’t give him away instead of Eddie. Whereas Eddie, the son who should feel aggrieved at having been torn away from his family at birth, is silent. We have no idea how he feels. It’s not clear that we’re supposed to care. Because the perspective being pushed is that Eddie has everything and Mickey has nothing. There is a real opportunity here to explore the other side of things, including taking a more cutting look at whether the use of adoption to provide children for the wealthy (at the expense of the poor) is in the best interests of those children themselves. At present, the show draws an uneasy parallel between Mrs Johnstone’s inability to manage her money and the loss of her child. Although there is of course a legitimate argument that adoption treats children as commodities, this really needs to be looked at from the perspective of the child, not just the adults involved.

It’s clear why Blood Brothers has been such a commercial success over the years. The story is compelling and complemented perfectly by Willy Russell’s beautiful score. There is nothing flashy about this production, which is very much a showcase of storytelling. The set authentically conveys a sense of 1970’s Liverpool (and Mummy particularly enjoyed the prominent Everton graffiti that has no doubt been thrown in as a nod to Bill Kenwright’s other love). And, like so many other successful shows, it’s clear that this working class setting really helps the audience to relate to the story. In the programme notes, Kenwright concludes that there is no need to update Blood Brothers. As an adopter, Mummy is not so sure. It’s clearly pulling in the punters as it is and the standing ovation last night suggests that they are all happy customers. But Mummy would love to see it boldly updated in a way that shows the ongoing trauma for Eddie of being separated from his family at birth, instead of perpetuating the dangerous myth that being brought up by a wealthy family is all it takes to overcome adversity. She can tell you that’s not true.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers and Kettles (aka 3 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Blood Brothers plays at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford from 19 to 23 November 2019, as part of a national tour.