Nick Pentelow By Hester Lacey
Willy Russell’s musical Blood Brothers opened in 1988 at the Albery Theatre and I joined in 1991. I was deputising for the regular sax player and I thought I’d be there for two weeks. In fact, it’s been 21 years, a good stretch for anyone – particularly in the music profession. Blood Brothers isn’t like traditional musical theatre: you can hear influences of folk, pop, and that’s why I was asked to join; I can take on board all of those.
I always loved music but I never thought I’d be able to make a career of it – when I was a kid, it was difficult to afford an instrument, for a start. I began with the recorder at school; my parents bought me my first clarinet for £12, and when I was about 15, I got an alto saxophone. When I turned professional, my first week’s wages was two-and-a-half quid – even with inflation that’s not much.
One night, I was playing in a club in Birmingham and [the musician] Roy Wood came along and said: “How would you like to play at Wembley Stadium?” And then I was playing with Roy’s band Wizzard, on a bill alongside Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis – I was terrified. Goodness knows what it sounded like.
Blood Brothers was entirely different to anything I’d done before. Each act is one-and-a-quarter hours long and there are 37 musical cues within the two acts, for anything from a complete song to a motif from a song, just a few bars, or a sound effect like a heartbeat. There are a few spaces where I’m not doing anything – the longest is about 14 minutes. You give everything you’ve got for your solo or in the ensemble, then sit back.
In between cues you can read a book or have a doze – that doesn’t denote boredom or complacency, but you can’t be perched on the edge all the time. You wouldn’t function properly. There’s always a spark because, while I might have done this thousands of times, for people in the audience it’s the first time, so you do have to give it your all.
We’re not in a pit for the West End production; we’re on stage, but elevated. Looking from the auditorium towards the stage, it’s as though you’re on a street of terraced houses to the left and right, and the bedrooms of those small terraced houses are where we’re playing, with half the band on one side of the “street”, half on the other. I look out of the window from one of these rooms to where the musical director is across the “street”, and he cues us.
There are eight shows a week but you can also go out and do different types of work. Some people choose not to but I like the variety. That’s where the musical director, Rod Edwards, has been very generous; he let us have time off providing there weren’t too many of us off at the same time. The musicians have known each other for years. We meet up between shows, go out for something to eat. I couldn’t do the job if that atmosphere didn’t exist.
Naturally, as the actors come and go, the characters have stayed the same age. The musicians look like they’ve walked out of Shangri-La while the actors are forever young. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” is the Wizzard record that comes round every year and most of the actors in Blood Brothers weren’t even born when it was first released. If any of them see the video, they have difficulty recognising me – they just don’t associate the bopping, ginger-quiffed sax-playing Teddy Boy with the doddery old guy that plays in the show.
When Blood Brothers finally closes next month, there will be sadness – but also a twinge of excitement. I’m going on tour with Andy Fairweather Low and the Low Riders and we’re also doing a new album. So I don’t think the end of the show will sink in until January. When I started, it was during a momentous period for me. My father died – and my partner found we were expecting our daughter. She’s 20 now, and I’m going out on the road again to live off Ginsters pies and real ale – I’m looking forward to it.