WHEN Blood Brothers first opened in the West End, it was by no means an instant hit. Although the critics enjoyed it, neither their recommendations, nor an Olivier Award, could keep it running beyond a few months.
It was when Bill Kenwright and Bob Thomson picked it up in 1987 and reworked Willy Russell’s story of twins separated at birth, that it took its first step on the path to become one of the West End’s most successful musicals, running for 24 years.
“Bill Kenwright and Bob Thomson could see how it could be a success and they turned it into a global phenomenon, running on Broadway and touring everywhere,” says Sean Jones, who plays Mickey in the current tour that comes to the Theatre Royal next week.
“It’s a timeless story,” adds the 42-year-old of the musical’s enduring success, that has included four awards for best musical in London and seven Tony Award nominations on Broadway.
“There’s the idea of twins separated at birth who are two sides of the same coin; it’s nature versus nurture argument. And there are themes of class, fate and family.”
Set in Liverpool during the 70s, Blood Brothers is the story of Mrs Johnstone, a young mother, deserted by her husband and left to her own devices, with seven children to feed.
She takes a job as a housekeeper in order to make ends meet and falls pregnant with twins.
Out of desperation she agrees to let her employer raise one of them as their own. The twins’ different backgrounds take them to opposite ends of the social spectrum, one becoming a councillor and the other unemployed and in prison.
When they both fall in love with the same girl, it has tragic consequences.
Russell was said to be inspired by the 1844 novella The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, whose greatest successes were The Count Of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
But the Liverpool playwright denied ever hearing of the story in an interview at the end of last year as it closed in the West End.
“I’d been going into schools for years saying that,” laughs Jones, who runs workshops for students on Blood Brothers which is on both the English and drama curricula.
“He said that the only inspiration for it was the nursery rhyme There Was An Old Lady Who Lived In A Shoe. And the scene where Mickey is losing his mind and running through the streets of Liverpool with a gun in his hand was inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song Hey Joe.”
He adds: “I like to think I’m as cool as Jimi Hendrix when I’m doing that on stage.”
Jones, from North Wales, has been in Blood Brothers on and off since 1999.
“It hasn’t changed since then, or even since Bill Kenwright first put it on the stage in 1989,” he says.
“And yet over the years I’ve had people saying ‘oh, it’s changed a lot, like all that stuff about depression and mental illness at the end’. That was always there! It’s at the core of the story.
“People have written letters to Bill Kenwright to complain about the ‘new’ swearing that’s gone into the show,” he laughs.
Russell first wrote Blood Brothers as a school play in 1982, before it opened at Liverpool Playhouse a year later with Barbara Dickson as its star.
It ran in the West End the same year but closed by November.
The Kenwright/Thomson production toured the UK in 1987 and transferred to the West End a year later, where it stayed for the next 24 years, becoming the third longest-running musical.
Worldwide cast members have included Russell Crowe in Australia and David Cassidy on Broadway.
“I think it’s a very masculine show,” says Jones. “There aren’t many musicals where you have guns. Men tend to be dragged along to see it under duress by their wives or girlfriends and they are the ones who usually clue into it.
“And its themes are as relevant as when it was written. I go into schools and say ‘imagine what it was like to leave school with no prospects and with real financial problems’. That’s how things are today. It’s no longer a period piece.”
Despite the economic climate, Blood Brothers is still a sell-out success where it goes.
“It always amazes me that people will part with their money time and again because it’s not cheap when you are taking the whole family.
“I suppose the advantage we have is that Blood Brothers is a familiar brand. People are prepared to part with their money when they know they are going to have a good time. They know the quality is there.”
He adds: “A lot of the younger ones in the company probably don’t realise how lucky they are.”
The cast also includes Maureen Nolan as Mrs Johnstone, Mickey’s mum, who has been played by Jones’ wife.
“There is this weird Oedipal moment where I’m hugging my wife who is playing my mum and I’m kissing another girl, who is a friend of the family,” he laughs. “At least she gets to dominate me even more than usual.”
They met doing Blood Brothers and she will be joining the show, as Mrs Lyons, later in the run.
“We tend to tour with our three-year-old-daughter and the dog so it’s the whole family circus on the road.”
“Someone told me that there was a really good part for me in it. So I went along and fell in love with the part of Mickey. For years after I’d bore my friends going on about it. There is a video somewhere when I was a drama student at a drunken party acting out the final scenes from Blood Brothers.
“I recently found the original fax that I sent to Bill Kenwright just as I graduated asking to be in it. I never got an audition. It took me eight years before I was cast.”
Jones has also appeared on TV’s Hollyoaks, Men Behaving Badly and with Harry Hill. He’s been in Emmerdale three times, playing different characters.
“Most recently I played a paraplegic chair salesman,” he says. “I’m lucky because I live in Yorkshire and Emmerdale is on the doorstep. I’ve got quite a good relationship with the TV producers and casting directors there so when I’m on a break from Blood Brothers and they are casting for a small part, they give me some work.”
He has ambitions to work in film, and quite fancies a Shane Meadows project although he’s not quite mastered the Nottingham accent yet.
“As actors we always used to say that the hardest accent to do is Geordie but I think it’s East Midlands. It’s amazing and you spot it straight away but think ‘I can’t do that’. Paddy Considine can do it. And Steve Coogan’s in Saxondale wasn’t bad.”
He adds: “That’s my plan for the week. To master the Nottingham accent.”
Blood Brothers runs at the Theatre Royal from Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Thursday at 2pm and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets are very limited and cost £16-£35. For availability call 0115 989 5555 or go to www.trch.co.uk.