Blood Brothers


Phoenix Theatre, Monday 16 June 2008


Review by Emma Shane

© 25 June 2008


Question what have West End musical theatre actresses: Leslie Ash, Louise Gold, Michele Hooper, Louise Plowright, Summer Rognlie, and now Lyn Paul got in common?

Answer, at some point in their West End careers they’ve all been understudied by the same actress.


This is one of those reviews where it may be appropriate for me to warn the reader that I intend to state my honest opinion, perhaps sometimes brutally so, (and tonight this show had several understudies on), so if you don’t like this sort of thing from an amateur reviewer you might be better off not reading it.


Going to see a big West End show can be an apprehensive business. Will the production actually be worth the ticket price? Will all the stars be on? And if not will the covers do a decent job?  Sometimes when one goes to see a big show it can be quite a disappointment to find an understudy on, though the extent of that can depend on how good the substitute is at doing the job. With Blood Brothers, on finding a slip in the programme, stating that four people would be on as covers, one of those being Louise Davidson taking the leading role of Mrs Johnstone, I actually felt excited at the prospect of finding out whether these particular understudies would be up to the job? 


The curtain opens on a scene in a morgue. Two actors enter and lie on slabs (one centre stage length up the stage, the other nearer the front is across the stage. The narrator, Craig Price, who always wears a suit, enters early in the proceedings. Gradually the other actors take their places. Most of the ensemble are dressed as police officers. Near the further slab huddled together stand Stephen Pallister and Amy O’Neil as Mr and Mrs Lyons. Meanwhile Louise Davidson takes her place mid-stage left, with her back to the audience. The only reason to realise she is the leading lady being the fact she is the one standing alone. The narrator delivers his opening lines, and at the key moment Mrs Johnstone turns to face the audience. It’s a key moment in the plot, Louise Davidson executes that ok, though with little of the authority that some leading ladies would give it. But let’s not judge her too hastily. Onto the opening number Marilyn Monroe, it’s Ms Davidson’s chance to take charge of the scene, nearly everyone else exits, and with this number take charge she does. She carries the number perfectly well, and seems to be a pretty convincing actress. She gets right into character, sings nicely, and moves well, particularly when executing a few ballroom dancing type steps. She holds the scene together, as the story progresses to there being too many kids and another on the way.  For example, she comes across very convincingly pleading with an actor playing a milkman; to give her till the following week. Then into a dialogue scene at Mrs Lyons’ house, where despite having to deliver some otherwise unbelievable lines, she nevertheless succeeds in making the audience go along with it. There’s a feeling that we’ve got a safe pair of hands here, an actress who is going to steer the show in the right direction. She portrays the character as very practical, and down to earth, and even manages to be perfectly convincing when the actor playing the milkman reappears as the Doctor. On to the horror of finding it’s twins, and telling Mrs Lyons about it, again convincing. Meanwhile Amy O’Neil playing Mrs Lyons also comes across with conviction as an initially kindly but then scheming rich woman who will do anything to get a child. On persuading Mrs Johnstone to give up one of the children (and swear a pact on the bible) the pair duet My Child. This is very much a double act, with neither being dominant. I expect in some performances and productions, you would get Mrs Johnstone dominating the number (because some leading actresses have ways of dominating the stage when they are supposed to be singing duets). But it doesn’t really matter either way, and in fact making the two women very much equals in the song might actually be more effective plot-wise. Another moment early one which I found rather amusing was when Mrs Lyons put her new shoes on the table, and the result prompted her to say to her cleaning lady “Oh you’re superstitious”; To which Mrs Johnstone protests she is not... “but shoes on the table...” . This is actually totally convincing, if you’ve ever come across someone insisting “I’m totally not superstitious, although.....” (and made me think of one Dynamo on the TV documentary A Week In The West End – hmm I wonder if the fact that Louise has understudied the actress concerned, had anything to do with how convincingly she delivered this scene? probably not, but you never know).

A few screaming sound-effects later, has the twins born, and in a pram together, with Mrs Johnstone arriving home to find bailiffs removing the hire-purchase goods she hasn’t managed to pay for. Easy Terms this is one of Willy Russell’s better songs, which Louise Davidson sings with satisfactory feeling, as though she means it; I couldn’t help thinking there might be singer-actresses who’d make more of it. But it’s not a bad performance by any means, and it is a good song. It made a reasonable impression not least because the one which followed it (or rather was sandwiched in between it and a reprise), namely Shoes Upon The Table sung by the narrator, though more dramatic wasn’t as tuneful. Just before that however, Mrs Lyons arrives to collect one of the twins. This is a scene where I am aware that our ‘leading lady’ is slightly lacking in stage presence, since Amy O’Neil’s performance of choosing one of the babies dominates the action. But fortunately this does not harm the show. The scene still works perfectly well.

                Having acquired another woman’s baby which she is determined to pass off as her own, Mrs Lyons then does exactly as you would expect, tries to make sure that Mrs Johnstone will have nothing to do with the child, not only by dismissing her from her employment, but also warning her of a superstition involving separated twins. Louise Davidson sings a bitter reprise of Easy Terms, and with no one else around to dominate her, she again holds the stage.


Children grow up; moving on seven nearly eight years in the plot enter Mickey, apparently played by Steven Palfreman (well that’s what it said in the programme, however a discussion thread on the Dress Circle messageboard suggests it might not have been);we soon have him being berated by his mother for having gone up near a certain posher part of town. Both act with complete conviction and really make the scene believable. Mrs Johnstone exits, and alone Mickey expresses his exasperation that he isn’t allowed to do the things “our Sammy” is because he’s only seven when in fact he’s nearly eight. Presently Eddie, played by Richard Reynard, enters. He is posh, and yet somehow he and Eddie are instantly drawn to each other. Eddie isn’t supposed to come down to this rough part of town. When they discover they were born on the same day they decide to become ‘Blood Brothers’. Presently Mrs Johnstone enters again, and on realising who Eddie is tells him to “Be off before the bogeyman gets you.”

Many of the ensemble enter, Kids Games performed by Sammy, Linda and Mickey along with most of the ensemble. Tonight, according to the slip in the programme Sammy is played by Andy Brady, whose name strangely does not appear in the programme. While Linda is played by Louise Clayton. With Amy O’Neil playing Mrs Lyons, for tonight’s performance Anna Sambrooks plays Donna-Marie (who also appears in this number and the accompanying scenes. All the performers do a splendid job of portraying kids, and look like they are having fun doing it. They are messing about with toy pistols and if someone gets shot without their fingers crossed then they have to play dead.

A while later Mickey and Linda go and fetch Eddie. Sammy has a real airgun, and Mickey knows where it’s hidden. The three play with the airgun. Neither Mickey or Eddie actually hit the target, but Linda, does twice, and the second time she does it bending over backwards, which rather makes one think of wantanyacicila (little straight shooter – herself immortalised in a 1940s musical) doesn’t it? Back home Mrs Lyons is horrified to discover where he’s been, the worrying makes her ill, and she begs her husband that they move to a new district out in the country. During these sequences the Narrator twice represses Shoes Upon The Table. A dramatic number, which I’m only surprised wasn’t called “the devil has got your number” since that lyric seems to occur a lot in it. Eddie comes to say goodbye to Mickey, when Mrs Johnstone opens the door at first she appears greatly annoyed he’s back, but on realising why, relents and comforts him, letting him set on the step in her arms. She sings to him Bright New Day (preview), which Louise Davidson sings very sweetly and tenderly, as a singer she is rather good at numbers requiring sweet simplicity (because she won’t overdo them). She asks him if he would like a photograph of Mickey, and gives him her own locket. Louise captures the tough yet tender heartedness of Mrs Johnstone perfectly, it’s a beautifully moving scene played with conviction by both of them. She calls Mickey to come and say goodbye, and when Eddie departs then comforts Mickey, with him sitting in the same position in her arms on the step. Louise handles the whole scene so well you wouldn’t have guessed from this scene that she is the understudy.

A twin soliloquy sung by the two boys Long Sunday Afternoon is performed well, and looks good visually.  Then the postman turns up. Mrs Johnstone is protesting (in a fine Lancashire accent) that she’s up to date with payments. However, it turns out to be good news, the street is to be pulled down and they are to be rehoused on a new estate in the countryside. This leads into the Act 1 finale Bright New Day. The number, which was previously sweet and tender, now becomes a loud funny one. It survives this treatment amazingly well. What it in fact becomes is the sort of number that might well be a brassy leading lady (such as Ethel Merman)’s equivalent of a Tauber-leider. There are many numbers that have filled this function in various musicals, and very often they are Act 1 finales (probably for the simple reason that with some singer-actresses they have the potential to be showstoppers). It is sung by most of the company, but Mrs Jonstone has to lead the company in singing it, and it’s the sort of thing that needs a strong stage presence. So would it work? Fortunately Louise Davidson rises to the occasion. It helps that the number has a lot of dancing in it. Like Melaine Stace she’s good at putting strength into a number if it includes dancing, her feet move so easily rhythmically during the first half of the song, and then when joined by the rest of the company they all dance for joy, with her at the head . Yes there have probably been  somewhat more powerful performances (for example I’ve no doubt that the 1986 Newbury Watermill version must’ve been pretty loud – given who  they had to lead it). However, tonight’s performance is jolly good, with Louise Davidson displaying a strong performance and stage presence that I didn’t know she was capable of. I couldn’t help but be impressed, and found myself thinking, if her performance when she understudied the dynamos in Mamma Mia! was anything like her one in this number, then I bet she was pretty good. Really a fine end to the act, and one that should certainly make the audience return for the second half.


Act 2 opens with Mrs Johnstone at home on the new estate, and another instalment of the song Marilyn Monroe. A few more years have passed. Mickey is now fourteen, and just discovering girls. Some of the others have married or moved away. Donna Marie has a child and another on the way (at which point Donna Marie walks past with a pram). While “Our Sammy burnt the school down”, Mrs Johnston continues to explain in song it wasn’t really his fault, if they will let kids play with magnesium. Louise Davidson puts a lot of conviction into this version of the song, as an actress she manages to sound like she really means it.

Mickey has to catch the bus to school, with Linda. The latter is now a boy-mad teenager in a mini-skirt. A startling contrast to Louise Clayton’s earlier characterisation as a tom-boy. And then Sammy threatens the bus conductor with a knife.

                Eddie has problems at boarding school, the master takes offence at him wearing a locket and refusing to hand it over, and so suspends him. By contrast Mickey also gets himself suspended for not paying attention in geography (his too busy looking at Linda). Mrs Lyons is greatly annoyed that Eddie got into trouble and is horrified when he agrees to show her the locket. We begin to see just how insane her desire for a child will drive her...

A while later, coming home from school, Mickey takes Linda for a walk over the fields, where they encounter Eddie.  A frustrated Linda, who can’t get Mickey to kiss her, exits in a huff. Leaving Mickey and Eddie to duet That Guy both thinking the other has better luck with girls. They decide to go to the cinema to see a racy film, but first drop by Mickey’s home. Mrs Johnstone on discovering what they are going to see, rather surprisingly doesn’t object. Somehow Louise Davidson succeeds in playing this scene with complete believability. After the film they encounter Linda, who has also just seen it, and then the three of them hang round together.

                Somehow Mrs Lyons finds out, calls on Mrs Johnstone, and threatens her with a knife, which Mrs Johnstone manages to wrest from her. It’s a sharp dramatic scene, which tonight Amy O’Neil and Louise Davidson play with precision and conviction, making it very believable, and quite disturbing. A splendid performance from not one but two understudies!

 The passage of time is indicated by the narrator singing another chunk of Shoes Upon The Table. By the time Mickey, Eddie and Linda are eighteen, Mickey has a job, at one of Mr Lyons’ factories, and Eddie is off to university. He sings to Linda I’m Not Saying A Word (maybe he loves her, but she’s Mickey’s girlfriend). Eddie persuades Mickey to finally tell Linda he loves her and kiss her, that lets the barriers down alright.

The next scene finds Mickey, about to depart for work, but first explaining to his mother that Linda is pregnant. Obviously he will marry Linda. He asks if they can live with his mother for the moment, she agrees. There’s a swift costume change for Louise Davidson, hastily taking off her apron to reveal a red dress, while Louise Clayton enters in bridal gown for a brief wedding scene. Miss Jones sung by Stephen Pallister, Anna Sambrooks and the ensemble finds various factory workers, including Mickey laid off. Needing money Mickey gets entangled with Sammy, a real shooter, and manages to get arrested for murder. A distraught Linda sinks to the ground. Louise Davidson manages to make an entrance from mid stage right so unremarkable and subtle for a moment I nearly mistook her one of the ensemble. It was only when she bent down to comfort Linda (Louise Clayton), that I realised it was the leading lady. However, after a moment or two she takes command of the scene and launches into the third instalment of Marilyn Monroe. By now this song is getting a bit tedious. Some singers have the ability to sing a telephone directory and make it interesting, unfortunately I don’t think Louise Davidson would be among them. However, she does hold the audiences’ attention.

Mickey, when released, is on anti-depressants. Mrs Johnstone and the Narrator duet Light Romance, a number which I can’t remember enough about to describe. Though I think it may have been the bit where they were both up on the gallery at the back of the stage. One ended up paying more attention to Louise Clayton and whoever was playing Mickey on the stage below.  Then Mickey, discovering how Linda got them a home of their own and him a job goes crazy. The Narrator launches into Shoes Upon The Table/Madman. Mickey bursts in on a council meeting, with a gun. A stand-off between Mickey and Eddie. Two actors playing ARV Police position themselves at either corner of the foot of the stage. Louise Clayton (as Linda) enters mid stage right, but stays outside what is evidently meant to be the room. The tension is mounting, one sort of knows what the ending will be, but not how. Then a surprise! The most startling entrance Louise Davidson has made all evening, one that truly only a Leading Lady would make, from the corner of bottom stage left, through the auditorium. Almost before we see her she yells at Mickey not to shoot Eddie;. Mounts the steps onto the stage and reveals the truth, a loud burst of gunfire. Both Mickey and Eddie lie dead. Both Louises freeze (in horror). After what seems like quite some time, various other members of the company trickle on, when at last they are all assembled Louise Davidson leads them with one of the best known songs from the show, Tell Me It’s Not True; and being a decent actress makes it her own. Yes it’s been sung by many far greater singers, probably with more vocal prowess. But for the purposes of tonight’s production she does it well, and it’s certainly better than Jessica Martin’s performance of that song in Blame It On My Youth, mainly because Louise Davidson very sensibly doesn’t try to do anything too clever with it, she just sings it with naturalness and sincerity in whatever way is right for her. She’s very much in command of the scene as she puts her coat over the actor playing Mickey (it says Steven Palfreman in the programme) and then moves both boys’ hands so they are positioned clasping hands (like on the show’s poster), as the curtain falls.


It only remains for the whole cast to take their bows. They do this all together as a team in one long line (there’s no hierarchy here). However, Craig Price and Louise Davidson are very much centre of the line as they do it, and there is a slight sense that it is Louise who leads them all as the join hands to walk forward for a bow, which they do about three times, until the curtain falls for the last time.


Overall a very good team effort from the whole cast. Sometimes in big West End shows, when you’ve got understudies on it can pull down the whole performance of the cast, partly because actors get used to acting opposite particular people and have their performances fine-tuned to their fellow performers strengths. However tonight, despite having four covers, this did not appear to be a problem.  The show itself is a musical with a powerful story. I was not exactly impressed by the lyrics, I mean they’re not a patch on for example Eric Maschwitz’s, however his music is at least thankfully better than say Gerad Presgavic. The band (David Rose, Rick Finlay, Lewis Evans, Jeffrey Crampton, Nick Pentelow, Susanna Halberds, Martin Etheridfe, and, Tony Wagstaff) under the direction of Rod Edwards do a reasonable job, although there was one moment when they drowned out the leading lady (were they trying to tell her to “Sing out....”?). The ensemble of (according to the programme) Alastair Brookshaw, Karl Greenwood, Alex Harland, Rob Hughes, Stephen Pallister, Anna Smabrooks, and, Michael Southern all backed up principals admirably, playing a wide range of characters. Louise Clayton did a particularly good job with the role of Linda, having to play the same character in three very different ways according the character’s age. Of the three young people Richard Reynard as Eddie is the one whose character changes the least. Nevertheless it isn’t always easy to act posh and yet friendly at the same time, but Richard does manage this perfectly well. According to the programme Mickey was played by Steven Palfreman, however some sources suggest he was appearing in a show on the Isle Of Man that night. Either way whoever was playing Mickey made a good job of it, capturing the boy’s attitude at the age of seven nearly eight, shyness at fourteen, and then a complete contrast in the broken ex-prisoner at the end. Like everyone else he did a good job with his part. Another anomaly in the programme is the role of Sammy, played so the slip says by Andy Brady (whose name doesn’t appear anywhere else in the programme), so we don’t have any information in this actor, but he did a perfectly satisfactory job of playing a young thug who grows up to become a hardened criminal. Anna Sambrooks too plays Donna-Marie and Miss Jones with satisfaction, making these smaller roles noticed, but then she has had some experience of them before. Another understudy actress with a fair amount of experience of the show is Amy O’Neil, tonight playing Mrs Lyons. She does a convincing job of making the character initially so pleasant, but becoming so manipulative, and then quite crazy. All of which she plays with conviction. Good though these three covers are, their efforts would have been in vain were the actress taking the role of leading lady not up to the mark. Fortunately this difficult task is undertaken by Louise Davidson, who seems to be something of a British answer to Lenora Nemetz! It’s soon apparent why, she’s actually very good at her job. There are some actresses who when they play leading roles (and in some cases even when they don’t) have such a huge stage presence that practically the moment they set foot on the stage the audience is going to be aware of them; so that like the Captain of a ship they command full attention, such that no one could upstage them. Ms Davidson does not appear to have that kind of presence. Her command of the stage is more akin to a trusted Lieutenant who having suddenly found themselves the only senior officer left has to take charge. What she does bring to her role however are excellent instincts as an actress and a great deal of common sense. In the overall scheme of things any faults in her performance tonight were of a minor nature (such as occasionally slipping out of the Lancashire accent), she played the character perfectly convincingly; and above all held the show together. In other words she did exactly what is needed in this situation. There are performers who as soon as they are given a chance in the spot light become so puffed up (with air like vanity cakes) they’ll give a performance that is all show and no substance. By contrast Louise Davidson’s performance isn’t all that showy, but it jolly well does have substance. She’s a fine actress who hones in on what is actually important to make the role work, and make it work quickly. There are performers who would try to make an impression by coming up with a totally individual interpretation. Peculiar interpretations may be alright for some established stars (who firstly know how far they can go and secondly the audience are used to their peculiarities), but it probably isn’t very sensible when it comes to understudies. Fortunately Louise Davidson seems to have far more sense than to do anything silly with a part. Her performance of a given song or scene may not necessarily be the most memorable, however I think one can trust her not murder it; she’ll get the piece across somehow or another. She’ll get the job done, and done pretty well. From what I’ve seen of her work so far, at her best she’s engaging and entertaining; while at her worst merely a little dull (and if that’s the worst one can say about a performer it’s not that bad is it?). Her performance may not necessarily be so brilliant as to set the stage alight, but I think one can trust her not to ruin a role by messing it up with anything silly. Common sense and trust was one of the key elements of her performance tonight. Right from the start she might not have a huge stage presence, but she appears to project a genuine warmth and quiet confidence that holds the audience, an audience that’s paid to see a West End Show. Ticket prices being what they are one expects a certain standard in the West End. That’s one of the reasons people like to see names, actors whose standard of performance they can be sure of; thus one of the reasons absenteeism can cause so much disappointment, is through the lowering of standards. One key role being played badly can have a knock on effect on other performances. However, if tonight’s performance proved one thing above all else, it is that Louise Davidson, along with Amy O’Neil, really can uphold the standard we expect in a West End production.

                Talking of upholding West End standards, leads one to wonder how Louise Davidson compares to the leading actresses she has understudied? Well I haven’t seen that many of them. But I have seen the two she understudied in Mamma Mia! (Louise Plowright and Louise Gold) a fair amount. Both are perhaps a dozen years her senior. So is it unfair to compare her to them?  Well so what, I’m still going to compare them. Gold and Plowright both have amazing stage presences. Gold unless she tries desperately not to will command attention as soon as she steps on stage. As for Plowright you just don’t dare not pay attention when she’s heading a show. By contrast Davidson does not have that sort of commanding presence. But when need be she can hold an audience, only it’s rather more subtle. In anything less than a fairly major principal role Gold and Plowright tend to stick out like a tomato in a box of asparagus, whereas Davidson will merge into the ensemble and not be too noticeable. When it comes to singing, as a vocalist Gold is totally amazing, and Plowright, with less versatility in song styles comes a fairly close second. Davidson is not as spectacular a singer as either of them, and to be totally honest not at their level of vocal prowess. However, she sings with sincerity, puts a lot of thought into it, and one can trust her not to ruin a good song. When it comes to playing a part or singing a number in a safe conventional way. Plowright will tend to the conventional, all be it with the occasional efforts putting twists onto the odd song. From what I’ve seen of Davidson she too tends to adopt a very common sense straightforward approach. Highly desirable, because then there’s no danger of digging a role into a hole. Gold does like to do totally her own thing, however she’s one of the few people with the skill to make that sort of thing work (without being silly) and therefore getaway with it, most of the time. But sometimes Gold manages to be a bit too clever for half her audience who don’t quite get it. It seems that actors often have the difficultly of coping with insufficient rehearsal time. I get there strong impression that here Gold and Davidson both score highly, as the sort of performers who can rise to that challenge, when they have to, think very quickly, and come up with a performance and project a confidence (however much acted) such that the audience it non-the-wiser. Whereas with Plowright, if she lacks confidence in a number (due to insufficient rehearsal or some such) then the audience may well be a little aware of it. In terms of playing a character convincingly as an actress Davidson is certainly up there with the other two. And if her performances in Mamma Mia! were anything like what she did tonight with Bright New Day, then I can see that she would’ve done a pretty decent job. On the strength of the quality of her acting, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing her tackle one of either April in Hot Shoe Shuffle (Plowright’s touring triumph from the mid 1990s), or Gussie in Merrily We Roll Along (which Gold did in Leicester in 1992). Since I very much like the original UK cast albums of both (and I doubt her singing would match them); that says something for the confidence I have in Davidson’s acting abilities.

 Given Louise Davidson’s excellent no nonsense acting, I can’t think why more use hasn’t been made of her talents in any forgotten musicals stagings. To date she has appeared in one of Ian Marshall Fisher’s shows, Something For The Boys (where she had a very minor role, and was totally overshadowed – but then given all the stellar performers in that show it was hard for anyone else to get a look in), and one of Stewart Nicholls’s shows, Zip Goes A Million (where her acting talents did have a good chance to flourish). Since these sort of stagings have a strong emphasis on the ‘books’ of the said musicals, wouldn’t she be an asset to them?

                Most of this cast of Blood Brothers were performers I had not seen before. I did once see Amy O’Neil play a memorable and very likeable The Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods. The only other performer I can recall seeing before on stage is Louise Davidson, even so I’ve never seen her talents quite so severely put to the test as they were tonight. When it comes to rising to a challenge, it’s good to see just how capable an actress she really is. Now I know why she has understudied so many major parts (she seems to be a safe pair of hands to hold a show together). There should always be a place in the West End for a performer with her talents. Nevertheless sometimes it would also be nice to see her given the chance to see what she could do in her own right, after all to quote Dan Goggin an understudied part is not her own. (Even when she succeeds in making it hers). There are two roles I would really love to see her given the opportunity play. One of them is Sister Robert Anne in Nunsense, because she could bring so much genuine feeling to that part (and wouldn’t it be great to have that character’s big Act One number, Playing Second Fiddle, sung by an actress with real experience of that task). The other is Betty Lorraine (the Joan McCracken role) in Rogers And Hammerstein’s Me And Juliet.  That might suit her very well (if her brilliant performance of It’s Me in the revue Something Wonderful was anything to go by). Besides which Me And Juliet is one of Rogers And Hammerstein’s least know musicals. So perhaps it’s time someone rediscovered it!

All in all I’m really glad to have witnessed this performance of Blood Brothers, mainly because, even with four understudies on, all the performances were of such a high acting standard. It’s good to know there are West End understudies out there who can actually do their job very well.



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