Blood Brothers at the Hippodrome

The first production of “Blood Brothers” at Birmingham Hippodrome was unintended. Out of a fluke was born a perennial hit musical that never fails to get standing ovations.

When it was staged from 7 August until 2 September, 1995, it was brought in at very short notice to fill an awkward gap in the Hippodrome’s programme.

It had been intended to revive the musical “Billy”, the original production of which had played in the West End in 1974, starring Michael Crawford and Elaine Paige. It was based on the book “Billy Liar” by Keith Waterhouse. The play of the same title was staged at the Hippodrome in November, 1962, with Billy being played by Kenneth Farrington, the fictional son of Coronation Street’s Annie Walker. (BHIPP:2015.200).

The musical revival was to star Jason Donovan, Roy Barraclough and Kathy Staff and its premiere was planned for the Hippodrome. A Press Conference was called to announce the show and its star. However, behind the scenes, things were not going well and there were technical issues which became so pressing that the premiere was cancelled and the show later opened at Bristol Hippodrome – it never came here!

At the time, the Hippodrome’s Director was Peter Tod and he told me in an interview for the theatre’s Archives that he was “apoplectic” at the cancellation. How could he fill the gap in the schedule?

Peter had for some time been a fan of a new musical called “Blood Brothers” that had hadb a modest success in the West End. Theatre impresario Bill Kenwright had bought the rights to the show and he opened a new production at London’s Phoenix Theatre in November, 1991, where it ran for more than 10,000 performances and became the West End’s third longest-running musical. Bill opened a Broadway production in 1993 and Peter Tod had joined a British contingent to support its glittering opening night.

So, he had a close affinity to the show and, faced with the awkward gap after the postponement of “Billy”, he contacted Bill Kenwright to see if, between them, they could stage a touring production of “Blood Brothers” to premiere at the Hippodrome. They had to work round the clock to mount the show from scratch. Peter told me the sets were drawn from productions around the world – before the Birmingham opening, they realised that the backcloth of the Liverpool skyline was still in Toronto and had to be sent over asap!

At very short notice, Australian singer Helen Reddy, who had recently played the part of Mrs. Johnstone on Broadway, flew over from Los Angeles to Birmingham for rehearsals- at least she knew the part! Fellow Australian Stefan Dennis, who had played Mickey in Australia, also flew in and quickly the production came together in about three weeks.

The Birmingham Hippodrome production, the first in the UK outside the West End, opened triumphantly on 7 August, 1995. Bill Kenwright said; “it was a first-rate cast and the production crew literally threw themselves into the most hectic production period imaginable for a major musical. The staff at Birmingham Hippodrome, who have always been widely reputed to be the best in the country, proved their reputation in every way and the whole adventure became a labour of love for everyone concerned from start to finish”.

At the end of the opening performance, there were curtain calls after curtain calls from an enthusiastic audience. And so it has gone on ever since.

That opening night on 7 August, 1995 has gone down as a stand-out moment in the Hippodrome’s 117-year history and a very proud and memorable time in Peter Tod’s theatre career.

The current production, starring Lyn Paul, is the tenth at the Hippodrome. Previous ones since the first in 1995 are –

March, 1997 – with Stephanie Lawrence, Mike Dyer and James Hirst
October, 1998 – with Bernadette Nolan, Mike Dyer and Stephen Donald
November, 2002 – with Denise Nolan, Adam Watkins and Sen Jones
October, 2004 – with Linda Nolan, Keith Burns and Sean Jones
October, 2006 – with Lyn Paul, Keith Burns and Stephen Palfringham
October, 2008 – with Niki Evans, Craig Price and Sean Jones
October, 2010 – with Niki Evans. Robbie Scotcher and Sean Jones
October, 2012 – with Marti Pellow, Nicki Evans, Sean Jones and Jordan Bird

The second Mrs. Johnstone at the Hippodrome, Stephanie Lawrence in 1997, was taken ill and her understudy went on for the Saturday matinee. Lyndsey de Paul rushed up from London to perform the evening show. She was currently in dress rehearsals for the West End production, in which she opened the following Monday night. She said, “it was more exciting than the London first-night!”

It seems that “Blood Brothers” is exciting to stage, with those last-minute panics!

Article researched and written by Heritage volunteer, Ivan Heard