Theatre Review: Blood Brothers at The Orchard Theatre

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If this was a Hollywood story, there would be a happy ending. You know, like The Parent Trap.

But this isn’t Hollywood, it’s Willy Russell, and you’ll find no happy-ever-after here. Blood Brothers isn’t just heart-wrenchingly brilliant, it’s rip your heart out through your throat, stamp on it multiple times and then throw it under a bus heart-wrenchingly brilliant.

The central performances – particularly Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone – ensure you won’t leave Dartford dry eyed, as this story of twins separated at birth is a very British, warm, funny yet ultimately tragic tale of two little boys who become best friends, not knowing the secret that binds them together until it’s too late.

The trademark real-life, witty writing of Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine) shines but credit also to the overall production, with sets straight out of my childhood, right down to the types of brick in the council houses and the football graffiti.

The adult cast playing as children early on is never cloying, just evocative of us all in those times with no mobile phones or gameboys – makeshift costumes to play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, galloping along on pretend horseback or – in Eddie’s case – clip clopping along like an equestrian parody.

As the boys grow up, their paths take a strikingly different route and the once solemn vow of friendship is severely tested when they meet again.

It’s a theme that Russell was fascinated by – not the relationship between twins as such, but what happens to them when they go their separate ways. In conversation with Elaine Page about Blood Brothers, he says: “If she picked the other one out of the pram, would it have been any different? I didn’t want a dry academic ‘nature versus nurture’ debate to go on, but that is what’s at the centre of it.”

I’ve never seen an audience stand as one at the end of a performance. Every show I’ve seen at the Orchard has always had an appreciative audience but the standing ovation is generally a gradual sun-rise event. This was a single movement, an acknowledgment to an outstanding, emotionally resonant piece of work.

What was enormously pleasing – and I’m sure Willy Russell will be happy to know – was the response of the pupils of a secondary school, who filled half the top circle. It was they whose reactions were loudest to each beat, whether it was the comedy of the youngsters or the burgeoning romance of Mickey and Linda. If they’re typical of young people in this country, the future of art and culture is assured.

Blood Brothers is at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday, November 26 and you can book your tickets here.

Dartford Station is just two minutes across the footbridge from the theatre. If you’re driving, the station car park is just £1.50 for the whole evening.