11 April 1983: Brothers spill first blood

Published April 23, 2008

It is currently the third longest running musical in the West End, surpassed only by Les Misérables and The Phantom Of The Opera, but when Blood Brothers first graced a London stage on 11 April 1983, it played for just six months before closing.

Set in Liverpool, Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers tells the story of working class mother Mrs Johnstone, who, without the money to care for her growing brood of children, gives up one of her newborn twin sons to the wealthy Mrs Lyons, whose house she cleans. Years later, brothers Mickey and Eddie meet and become friends without realising they are related, which ultimately leads to tragic consequences.

The show began life in 1981 as a play commissioned by Merseyside Young People’s Theatre Company to be performed by secondary school children. The following year, Russell reworked the story into a full musical, writing all the lyrics and music himself. The first professional stage production opened at Liverpool Playhouse in 1983, starring Barbara Dickson as Mrs Johnstone, with Andrew C Wandsworth and George Costigan as brothers Mickey and Eddie. On transferring to London’s Lyric theatre in April the show became a Laurence Olivier Award-winning success, picking up both Musical of the Year and Actress of the Year in a Musical for Dickson. Nevertheless, the show closed at the Lyric after just six months, and it wasn’t until five years later that the musical was to begin its domination of the capital.

It was producer Bill Kenwright who revived the show in 1988 and staged it first on tour, then at London’s Albery theatre (now Noël Coward), where it opened on 27 August 1988. Again, it found success at the Laurence Olivier Awards, receiving several nominations, of which Con O’Neill won Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Mickey. This time, the show remained in London and transferred to the Phoenix in November 1991, where it is still running today. The production celebrates its 20th birthday in London in August 2008.

Over the years many people have occupied the principal roles. The superstitious shoes of Mrs Johnstone, currently played by Lyn Paul, have been worn by Kiki Dee, Stephanie Lawrence – who also originated the role on Broadway in 1993 – Helen Hobson, Siobhan McCarthy and four of the Nolan sisters – Linda, Bernie, Denise and Maureen.

Playwright, songwriter and novelist Russell’s other work includes the well-known plays Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine (both of which were turned into highly successful films), Stags And Hens, Our Day Out, Breezeblock Park and John Paul George Ringo…And Bert, plus the novel The Wrong Boy.

CB