IF YOU ask a class of drama students why they chose their subject, a majority will answer with an anecdote about seeing a heart-stopping production at a formative age. For me, Willy Russell's Blood Brothers wasn't exactly that (when I saw it at the age of 18, I'd already developed a theatregoing habit), but it did make a tremendous impression.
If I'm calculating right, it was Friday 7 January 1983, and I'd managed to buy a ticket for a preview performance in the very back row, upstairs at the Liverpool Playhouse. It must have been the last seat in the house.
At one point in Chris Bond's production, a door jammed and Barbara Dickson, the first Mrs Johnstone, had to make her entrance round the side. The audience liked that. We knew it was a preview and it made it more real. We gave her an extra round of applause.
Back then, Russell's reputation on Merseyside meant a large audience was happy to turn out for an unknown play. Thanks to John, Paul, George, Ringo … & Bert, Our Day Out and Educating Rita, Russell and other Liverpool playwrights had moved new writing out of the studio-theatre ghetto. I'd heard about Blood Brothers because my mum, a teacher, had seen Russell's earlier nonmusical version on a schools tour, but otherwise, it was just a new show by a popular local author that everyone wanted to see.
What excited me at the time was that this was a musical that had everything. Andrew Schofield came on as a narrator who spoke in rhyming couplets ("So, did y' hear the story of the Johnstone twins?/As like each other as two new pins") which gave the show an air of Greek tragedy. It had a narrative arc to match. That could have been pretentious, except this show was also boisterous, earthy and funny.
It had an authentic working-class voice and, in its story about twins brought up on either side of the class divide, it wore its political heart on its sleeve. This was 18 months after the Toxteth riots, the era of Militantcouncils and Boys from the Blackstuff, and to find socialist principles enshrined in a popular musical felt like a tremendous provocation. It wasn't West End glitz, it was theatre rooted in its place and time.
All this, and a set of sweetly melodic songs by Russell himself that reminded us musicals could work in a folk/pop idiom – just as they had done in the golden era of Broadway. I'm Not Saying a Word, Tell Me It's Not True, Marilyn Monroe … has any playwright since Noël Coward doubled up so persuasively as a composer?
Recently, a friend told me he'd seen the show on a UK tour and was shocked by how bad it was. I don't know, I wasn't there. Maybe it became something else after 30 years. But back at the start of 1983, Blood Brothers stood for everything I believed theatre could be.