Review: Blood Brothers at Liverpool Empire *****


There are very few shows that can boast a natural ‘home’ – and a prodigal homecoming to boot.

But Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s tragic tale of the Johnstone twins, is one.

And 39 years (and 10 months) since the much-loved, moving musical melodrama received its professional premiere on the Playhouse stage, it remains as phenomenally popular as ever here in the city of its birt.

Bill Kenwright has been at the helm of the show for 35 of those nearly-40 years, and like a proud parent he was at a packed Empire for the opening night of this latest visit to Liverpool (there was a rumour Russell was in the house too).

And what a fantastic opening night. This current touring version is one of the strongest productions of the nature verses nurture story that I’ve seen.

Blood Brothers fans will all have their own favourite Mrs Johnstone, the matriarch with the brood of boisterous, tearaway children and a feckless Teddy boy husband who takes her dancing ‘like Marilyn Monroe’ before abandoning the family for pastures new.

The key role has been played by an impressive roster of actresses (including Stephanie Lawrence, Lyn Paul, Melanie C and four Nolan sisters) since Barbara Dickson won an Olivier for the original production all those years ago.

Niki Colwell Evans, erstwhile of X Factor, brings a palpable sense of desperation – and of deep love for her troubled offspring – to the part, as well as a powerful and melodic singing voice which she deploys to satisfying, emotional effect, both in the poignant Easy Terms and in the subtle trembling passion of the opening lines of Tell Me It’s Not True.

George Costigan was the original Mickey and Con O’Neill played him in the West End and on Broadway, but it’s Sean Jones who has really made the role his own over a remarkable 23 years.

This is his farewell tour, and while in real life, the North Walian may be a middle-aged dad, on stage he’s a ball of blistering energy and utterly believable both as a seven-year-old (nearly eight) urchin in capacious green jumper and shorts and a gauche teenager, but equally in the darker second half as a weary, Prozac-popping adult who can’t see past the raw deal life has delivered.

He and Jay Worley, giving a ‘smashing’ performance as bright-eyed ‘blood brother’ twin Eddie, have a lovely rapport, while Timothy Lucas – who as a teenager appeared in a Stage Experience production of Fame on the Empire’s stage – brings an enjoyable, wild-eyed unpredictability to feral big brother Sammy.

In fact, there’s not a weak link in a show which, four decades on from its birth, hits all the Blood Brothers buttons and then some.