The enduring appeal of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers as it returns to Norwich
PUBLISHED: 08:39 19 September 2017 | UPDATED: 08:39 19 September 2017
One of the West End’s best-loved musicals, running for 24 years, Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers remains every bit as engaging as it was at its humble beginnings in Liverpool, as one of the stars Sean Jones explains as it returns to Norwich Theatre Royal.
It is hailed as one of the greatest musicals of all time and Blood Brothers has won a host of awards in the UK and on Broadway which is all a far cry from its humbler beginnings.
Penned by the award-winning Willy Russell, who had just enjoyed huge success with Educating Rita, it started life as a play performed in a Liverpool comprehensive school in 1981 before opening at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983.
On a short run in the West End it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and went on to a year-long national tour building up a strong fan following before returning to London. It went on to run for more than 24 years, playing more than 10,000 performances and becoming the third longest-running musical in West End history.
The show tells the story of young mother Mrs Johnstone who is forced to take a job as a housekeeper to provide for her seven hungry children when her husband leaves her.
When she discovers she has fallen pregnant again with twins, her world crashes around her and she enters a secret pact with her employer leading to a tragic conclusion.
Though very British in its setting the nature versus nurture tale of twin boys separated at birth, plus some iconic songs including A Bright New Day, Marilyn Monroe, and the heart-tugging Tell Me It’s Not True, have proved to have global appeal.
The musical has toured and played sell out seasons as far afield as the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.
Now it is back in the region at Norwich Theatre Royal. Taking on the role of Mrs Johnstone is Lyn Paul who reprises a role she first played in 1997 as well as having portrayed the troubled character in the show’s final West End performances.
Lyn rose to fame in the early Seventies as a member of The New Seekers singing on their 1972 Eurovision Song Contest entry Beg, Steal Or Borrow, and their Number One hit two years later, You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me. She is also no stranger to the stage starring in the 2013 UK tour of Cabaret, Boy George’s musical Taboo, and also Footloose The Musical.
Returning to the role of the Narrator is Dean Chisnall who last wowed Norwich audiences in the title role in Shrek The Musical and who has also starred in Love Never Dies, Never Forget, Evita, and The Woman In White.
And returning to star in the show once again is Sean Jones who reprises the role of Mickey which he played on the show’s previous visit to this region in 2012.He has been part of the show for around 17 years, and has played Mickey for 15 of them, but how similar is he to his character? “Mickey is basically me but with drug addiction and jail terms thrown in,” he laughs.
“It’s very similar to myself as I was actually expelled from school. When I first saw the show, it was because someone had said to me, you should go and see the show because there’s a part that you’d be right for and when you’re a young actor, you want to know what to market yourself on.
“So I went to see it, and it is set in Liverpool which is just down the road from my North Wales home and I thought, ‘I get this’. The only downside of it was that it’s a musical and I’m not very musical theatre. I did not train to do it and had never done a day of dance class in my life.”
Sean was pursued to audition for the part of understudy to Mickey. “I really didn’t think I’d get it. I was shocked to get a recall and thought that was as far as I would get but then I got the understudy part. I understudied for two years and there was a tour going out on the road and I begged to get another chance to audition. Eventually I did and I got it. In this job, it’s very rare that you get to play a part that you want to play.”
One of the tough things about the role is that Sean plays Mickey as both a child and a grown man, which is no mean feat.
How does he manage to play both roles effectively? “Well, first and foremost, it is the writing. Willy Russell has written the part of a seven-year-old boy perfectly. He really understood what the essence of playing that age is so I think the writing primarily helps.
“The directors also won’t just let you put on a silly, childlike voice and walk like a kid. What they want is to find the essence of being that age, because the whole thing about the audience is to have them suspend their disbelief because it is storytelling and make believe.
“I run on stage in a baggy jumper and I sit on the edge of the stage and tell the audience I’m seven-years-old and they’ll accept it. As long as I am giving the right amount of energy then they will just go along with it. They get so engrossed in the characters; they forget they are watching adults.”
He is loving the opportunity to be out on tour again with the show, but how does he find mixing the rigours of touring with his young family?
“The family used to come on the road with me,” he said. “My missus Tracey Spencer used to play Mrs Lyons in the show before and after my little girl Elinor was born. Now Elinor is at school, they will visit at half-term and maybe the odd weekend if we are close to home.”
• Blood Brothers is at Norwich Theatre Royal from September 19-23, 7.30pm, 2.30pm September 20, 21 and 23, £38-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk