“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
“The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms”
The original intention of Chekhov was for “The Cherry Orchard” to be a comedy; yet when it was first staged in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, the writer/director Constantin Stanislavski turned it into a tragedy. If not distressed, Chekhov was very irritated by the misrepresentation of his work. Enough to put him in a mild state of depression. Ever since, there has been much discussion on the multi-layered nature of the play’s message.
Sean Mathias’ production at Theatre Royal, Windsor knows which side of the fence it lies and undoubtedly remains true to Chekhov’s intentions. With the help of a stellar cast the humour of the piece shines through and is maintained throughout the overly long two and a half hours running time. This is no mean feat, given that the characters themselves are generally not the comic type. Yet the wonderful ensemble cast bring out the flaws and the foolishness; the childishness in a seemingly mature group of people. It’s a kind of coming-of-age story for those who have already long come of age.
Fresh from the demands of his trail-blazing and age-defying Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen is taking a step back, trying to blend into the background as the elderly servant Firs. There is a danger of his cameo becoming the lead but his generosity and sheer attention to the detail of how his character fits into the narrative lead to what is both a show-stealing performance, yet allowing his fellow actors to plunder as much as they can. Robert Daws is an absolute delight as the cash strapped moocher, overflowing with optimism and drunken charm and bouncing off Martin Shaw’s more successful but less confident Lopakhin. Shaw skilfully managed to mix a self-conscious awareness of Lopakhin’s peasant background with a cocksure sense of his own right to cut the privileged down to size (and ultimately cut down their beloved cherry orchard).
Francesca Annis, as Ranyevskaya the owner of the estate, swoops onto the stage majestically. No stranger to personal tragedy, she still seems clothed in waves of happiness. Yet Annis has the skill to show us the many tears and gashes that are covered up. The childlike way she greets her furniture as affectionately as her family is simultaneously ridiculous and tender. Her mix of tragedy and comedy is most (there’s only one way to put it) Chekhovian. But the minor characters also manage to have a major effect. Missy Malek and Kezrena James as the two sisters; and Alis Wyn Davies as the maid, Dunyasha, are names to look out for. Alison Halstead gives a fireball of a performance as the circus performer, trickster come governess, Charlotte. The only one who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the sense of fun that can be had with these characters is Jenny Seagrove, who plays the brother Gaev with a touch too much seriousness and lack of colour.
This is a piece that focuses on the characters and their interactions more than the story. After all, not an awful lot happens. In Act One, the cherry orchard is in danger of being sold, in Act Two it is on the verge of being sold, in Act Three it is sold, and in Act Four it has been sold. The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms and rambling lives that are just about keeping afloat. Much to relate to. There is tragedy everywhere, but we don’t always want to focus on that. This show, led by the inimitable McKellen et al, encompasses Chekhov’s spirit and lets us laugh at the seriousness of it all. Even if only for a couple of hours, but it is worth every minute.