Terry Grimley reviews Blood Brothers at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
It's come to my attention that Willy Russell is now on the GCSE syllabus - hence the conspicuous school parties in the packed Hippodrome on Tuesday. Why do I find this so depressing?
Not because there is no worth in vigorous populist theatre, which Blood Brothers undoubtedly is - particularly in this production, which is the best of the far too many I've seen - but because the show's sentimentality, crude class stereotypes and banal lyrics seem poor benchmarks of artistic quality.
To pick up on the lyrics in particular, is there a more irritating lyrical conceit in the whole of music theatre than the ludicrously extended comparison of Mrs Johnstone and Marilyn Monroe?
Russell is capable of much better writing, as Educating Rita demonstrates. But it's Blood Brothers that has become the unstoppable crowd-pleaser, and watching this version it's not difficult to see why.
For a start, it's cleverly structured.
Launching his tragedy with its climax, Russell rewinds to begin at the beginning of his story of twins separated at birth by, to quote from those underwhelming lyrics, "what the English have come to know as class. "
The use of a Mephistopheles-like narrator means you are never allowed to forget that tragic inevitability is ticking away like clockwork.
It's powerfully done here - the final showdown, with armed police storming the auditorium, has you on the edge of your seat even though you already know it's not going to turn out well. I am never going to be convinced by this show, but this performance was the one that's come closest.
As the hapless working-class single mother Mrs Johnstone, Lyn Paul sings flawlessly but she does now seem a little on the senior side for a role she has performed for years.
* Running time: Three hours. Until Oct 21.