Lyn Paul, centre

Brothers In Arms

9th February 2018

When Willy Russell’s ‘Blood Brothers’ was first performed in the 80s, its gritty realism was in stark contrast to the pizazz of traditional musical theatre. In spite – or perhaps because – of this, it went on to be one of the most successful shows of all time. Thirty years later a special anniversary tour is bringing back the magic once again. Lisa Botwright catches up with two of its stars – Lyn Paul who plays Mrs Johnstone and Sean Jones who plays Mickey…

When Willy Russell read a one-act play as a child ‘about two babies switched at birth’, it planted a seed that became a mighty oak of musical theatre. He went on to write Blood Brothers, universally hailed as one of the best stage shows of all time, which scooped no fewer than four awards for Best Musical in London and seven Tony Award nominations on Broadway. It ran for more than 24 years in the West End, and played more than 10,000 performances, becoming the third longest-running musical production in West End history.

Thirty years on from its very first UK tour, this emotional story of twins brought up on either side of the class divide, which still offers a poignant political and social message, will be travelling to theatres all across the country, including the nearby Aylesbury Waterside Theatre.

The anniversary tour, which began last September and continues until May, brings back many original faces from its long run in the West End, including Lyn Paul, who was the show’s final Mrs Johnstone when it closed at The Phoenix Theatre in 2012, and Sean Jones who’s been playing the part of Mickey for more than 15 years. Reprising the roles must be like greeting an old friend?

“It certainly is!” Lyn confirms. “It’s absolutely like greeting an old friend – but terrifying at the same time!”

Sean agrees. “There are some people I have been working with since day one… the cast are like a big family too, and it’s brilliant because it’s very vibrant and good fun. It’s very down to earth with a lot of banter behind the scenes.”

Lyn Paul played the role of Mrs Johnstone from 1997 up until 2000, then revived it in 2008 and again in 2012 for the final two weeks of its West End run, when producer Bill Kenwright put together his dream-cast of the best of British and American actors. Lyn acknowledges her selection as ‘a great honour’ and is thrilled to return to the part. Is it fair to say that this is her ultimate role?

“Without a shadow of a doubt!” she exclaims. “Everything that she’s going through I feel. The way Willy [Russell] has written, it is so easy to get over to an audience, as it’s actually written as you would speak. Sometimes, when people write a script, you look at it and think, ‘well, that’s not how I would say it’. But this is so perfectly written and so easy, it flows, and I just feel that Mrs J is me, so it makes it very easy to play.”

Sean echoes this sense of easy familiarity with his character Mickey. “It’s basically me, but with drug addiction and jail terms thrown in,” he laughs. “It’s very similar, as actually, I was 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’s set in Liverpool which is just down the road [Sean is from north Wales] 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 didn’t train to do musical theatre, had never done a day’s dance class in my life.”

As an established singing star, Lyn – who rose to fame a member of pop group New Seekers in the early 1970s – approached the role from a different angle. “When I first played Mrs J, I was doing cabaret and Bill [Kenwright] took me away from all that. I wrote to him and asked him if he would consider me for the role of Mrs J; he sent me a letter back by return post, and less than three weeks later I was waiting on the stage at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End to start rehearsals and I cannot tell you what it did to me. I’d never acted and I thought, ‘oh my god, I can’t do this!’ But Bill showed so much faith in me.”

Blood Brothers is the story of twin boys separated at birth. “While I stay with my working class mother [played by Lyn Paul] my brother is given away to a rich family. That’s the story in a nutshell,” Sean explains.

Russell wrote the show as an angry response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative in an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies.

“The characters are growing up in 1960s and 1970s Liverpool and all that pertained to politics and class divide. I suppose it’s an examination of nature versus nurture and how nothing goes right for Mickey,” continues Sean. “He gets expelled from school and goes on the dole, because of the unemployment situation at the time, while his twin brother, who was given away, has a great education and goes to university. But fate keeps pulling them together and they become really good friends – however, as they get older, the differences between them become more stark.”

As a fan of the show, I find it incredible how Sean suspends belief so magnetically while playing his character both as a child and as a grown man. “It’s the writing,” says Sean emphatically. “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. But then also in Bill and Bob [Tomson] directing it, they 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. 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 accept it. As long as I am giving the right amount of energy, then they’ll just go along with it. They get so engrossed in the characters they forget they’re watching adults.”

Sean is married to fellow actor and Blood Brothers alumna Tracey Spencer, who used to play Mrs Lyons, the adoptive mother of the relinquished baby. The couple met in a Blood Brothers production in 1999 and married in 2004. In typical theatre style, they chose to do it on a two show day.

“We married in Cardiff at 11am and were on for the matinée performance at 2.30pm and then again in the evening. My family used to come on the road with me – before and after Elinor, our little girl was born. And now Elinor’s in school, they’ll visit at half-term and maybe the odd weekend if we’re close to home.”

Blood Brothers remains a very moving show, which has touched the lives of thousands of theatre-goers over the years. Guardian theatre critic Mark Fisher, who watched the play as an 18 year old, has since claimed that it made ‘a tremendous impression’. How much it has impacted the lives of the fans that Sean and Lyn have met? “I got a letter once from a woman who had a son who was in jail,” affirms Lyn “and she said she sat watching it and it was the only time she’d ever seen anybody portray on stage a jail sequence that is exactly as it is. And she said she cried and cried. So if that’s one example, can you imagine how other people must relate to other parts of it?”

I wonder if, having been part of this show for so many years, they have any advice for those who are starring in it and are on the road with them for the very first time? “The only thing I would say is that touring with Blood Brothers is like being in one big family. In all the years I’ve been doing it,” confides Lyn “it always has been, everyone does everything together and so I would tell them to embrace it and enjoy the camaraderie that we’ve always had.”

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