“Niki Evans returns triumphantly to the lead role”
It’s over forty years since Willy Russell penned Blood Brothers as a school play. From that humble beginning, the show grew into one of the most successful musicals of all time with productions in the West End, Broadway and around the world. To this day, it still holds on to third place as one of the longest running musicals in West End history having ran for over 10,000 performances. Since 2019 the show has been travelling around the UK (with a few obstacles along the way ..!) and this opening night performance at the Theatre Royal Windsor marks the start of a further sixteen weeks of touring.
The show revolves around young Liverpool mother, Mrs Johnstone. Deserted by her husband, she becomes a housekeeper for the wealthy Lyons family in order to feed her seven children. She is soon shocked to discover she is pregnant again, this time with twins, and makes a heart-breaking decision that forms the plot of the show.
Niki Evans returns triumphantly to the lead role she last performed over a decade ago in the West End. Her stunning performance throughout shows she has slipped back into the part as if she’d never been away – magnificent vocals (notably in the iconic ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ and the recurring refrain of ‘Marilyn Monroe’) and every inch the embodiment of the troubled Mrs Johnstone. Sean Jones returns as Mickey, in his final ever tour in the role accompanied by Joel Benedict as his twin brother, Eddie. Both actors deliver strong and nuanced characterisations as they play the boys across the years. The story as always is carried along by The Narrator, this time in the capable hands of Robbie Scotcher. Paula Tappenden is a believable, manipulative Mrs Lyons and Carly Burns as Linda (the twins’ childhood friend and Mickey’s wife) gives another standout performance.
Direction (Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright) clearly guides the cast to make the most of the action and Andy Walmsley’s simple yet effective set, which feels perfectly suited to the Theatre Royal’s stage. Sound (Dan Samson) and lighting (Nick Richings) are suitably subtle but effective nonetheless. Musical Director Matt Malone ensures the shows unforgettable songs are delivered to perfection by the top notch band.
As the show draws to a close with the haunting melody of ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ it’s easy to understand why Russell’s masterpiece continues to delight audiences. It’s that rare perfect mix of a show that makes you laugh and cry in exactly the right proportions. This latest tour will not be the last for the Blood Brothers and it’s surely only a matter of time before it makes a well-deserved return to the West End.
Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com
Photography by Robert Day (from previous production)
Theatre Royal Windsor until 29th January then UK Tour continues
“a shouty affair that drowns out much of the tragedy, truth and trauma running through the heart of the piece”
I approach “Heathers the Musical” somewhat as an outsider. In a seemingly packed, though socially distanced auditorium, I am detached from the majority of the audience. Although I am hoping to be drawn in, and accepted. Based on the eighties’ movie, which originally flopped only to become a cult; the musical rapidly became a cult in its own right while skipping the pre-requisite critical rejection that qualifies its status. What marks this production out from the start is the enthusiasm with which it is presented and received. Everything about it is heightened and it often feels like you are in a cartoon.
Set very specifically in 1989, it adopts the high school setting so popular at the time, but twists the genre into something much darker. It reaches further than the typical subject matter of peer pressure and rebellion and attempts to grapple with teenage suicide and the fatal attraction of belonging to a clique. The clique in question is a trio of girls, all called Heather, who hold sway with a swagger that pushes credibility to the limit. For reasons governed by plot clichés, the protagonist – Veronica – is desperate to run with this pack. To say that she eventually outruns them is no spoiler; we can all see it coming as visibly as the love interest side-line.
What rescues the storyline are the quirks, the shocks and body-count that we don’t anticipate. And the oddball minor characters that outshine the leads in most cases. Andy Fickman’s production is a shouty affair that drowns out much of the tragedy, truth and trauma running through the heart of the piece. The more successful moments are when the volume gets turned down and the irony and sporadic subversiveness is allowed to be heard.
Christina Bennington is in fine voice as Veronica, torn between following her fantasy (in the shape of the three Heathers) or her conscience, represented by the Baudelaire reading, enigmatic Jason ‘JD’ Dean; gleefully played with a tongue-in-cheek assuredness by Jordan Luke Gage. His rapid metamorphosis from sympathetic to psychopathic is fun to watch. Less so are the eponymous Heathers; Jodie Steele, Bobbie Little and Frances Mayli McCann who screech far too much for their own good. At least Steele has the advantage of her ‘Heather’ being killed off fairly early on, allowing her to come back and haunt the perpetrators – a sardonic ghost that sheds more light and shade on proceedings than those still alive and clinging onto a script that is pulling them under.
It is buoyed up by the music that, despite its subject matter, powers the piece with energy and optimism. Bizarrely this sense of optimism and misplaced nostalgia is what characterises “Heathers” which, in effect, is a musical about high school killers. It makes light of the issues but doesn’t succeed in highlighting them by the humour. But what do I know? As I said at the start – I am the outsider; detached from the rest of the audience. There’s no denying this is a solid production, with a dream cast of West End talent. And there’s no denying its guaranteed success. It has bludgeoned its way into its cult status – but at the cost of sensitivity.