Blood Brothers opened its current run in the West End in 1988, coincidentally the first year I ever came to London. I don’t think I even registered it was on at the time — all I cared about was spending my days in the Virgin Megastore and getting to see Chess. (I did both.)
By the time I started visiting London regularly a decade later, Blood Brothers was part of the West End furniture, running seemingly endlessly with a spare Nolan sister in the lead role. I’ve long thought I ought to see it — I think Willy Russell is a fine writer and I went through a strange Nolans Wikipedia edit war last year — but there was always something more urgent or with a more impressive roster of stars just down the road.
What finally got me in this year was the casting of Melanie C (that’s Sporty Spice to many of you) in the lead role. I’ve seen her twice in concert in recent years — once at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, once at a recording for the BBC radio show Jammin’ — so I know the woman can sing live. But can she act? And will I regret catching her in only her second night in the role? I headed to the Phoenix Theatre (which also houses the Phoenix Arts Club, site of KirstyFest 2009) on Tuesday night to find out.
The audience clearly has a larger contingent of Melanie C fans than conventional theatre-goers. (Fair enough too — bums on seats is what star casting is about.) From that point of view, Blood Brothers‘ rather unusual staging — there’s never a break where the audience can applaud between songs — is a boon, since it stops the whole thing becoming a ‘woohoo Mel’ frenzy at the expense of the performance (the bloke sitting next to me looked a definite risk in that way).
On the whole, though, that seems unlikely, because it’s a terrific play — energetic one minute, playing full-on for laughs the next, and with heart-wrenching moments never far away. And it makes the best comedic use of spit I’ve ever seen with a live show.
Most of the cast are Blood Brothers veterans (either from London or the UK tour), and they all perform their parts wonderfully. I’ll single out Stephen Palfreman, who plays Mickey (one of the brothers of the title), for his effortless switch from seven-year-old to nervous teenager to anti-depressant-addled jailbird, but there’s not a dud performance in the lot.
But let’s get to the nub: Melanie C. Her Scouse origins are doubtless useful as a stage novice (no accent to master), but she sings magnificently and acts the part beautifully. Mrs Johnstone is a fairly dour role, but she catches the lighter moments neatly as well.
At the end of her performance of ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, she looked (and sounded) utterly devastated, in a way you don’t often see with more veteran actresses, who drop into gracious smiles as the curtain calls begin. That’s not a criticism, just an observation of how deeply she’s inhabiting the part.
It’s hardly a cheering play — in effect, it’s a scouse musical version of a Greek tragedy — but it’s well worth seeing. I suspect I won’t wait another 21 years to see it again.