New Vic Theatre until Saturday 22 June 2019
Thomas Beecham is supposed to have said “Brass bands are all very well in their place — outdoors and several miles away.” The New Vic has definitively proved otherwise. From the moment their brass band marched on stage in the dark and three exhausted workers came up a pit shaft into their midst, until they finally “took Land of Hope and Glory back from the Tories” and gave it to us, the passion in this play never hit a false or dull note.
Adapted from the popular 1996 film of the same title, Brassed Off is based on the struggle to keep the pit working in the West Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe ten years after the miners’ strike.
You might think there’s enough in the here-and-now to get brassed off about. And that the ninety-year’s-worth of coal at Grimethorpe are best left underground anyway given the climate emergency we face. But Brassed Off is about an embattled community grappling with what really matters most to it. It seems more like a foreshadowing than an elegy.
Conrad Nelson directs with an experienced hand. He manages with agility a large number of bodies on a small stage and keeps the multiple short scenes moving along deftly. But he gives his cast time to breathe. There are many comic asides delivered with precision – Jim and Harry drunkenly blowing their horns in the street but stopping to take their shoes off so as not to disturb the neighbours, Andy winning back his cornet with a stunning snooker shot. And there is deep pathos — when bailiffs strip Sandra’s house it comes with a truly shocking edge.
The cast is outstanding. Individually they give their characters the honesty and urgency they deserve. Together they play with the tightness Danny expects from his band and the miners from each other. When Sandra and Phil fight over two pounds, to buy food for their children’s tea or to pay for his weekly sub to the band, the tension is tangible. It’s a tension maintained between the miners and their campaigning wives throughout.
There is tension, too, between a growing pragmatism – or defeatism — among miners tempted by management’s redundancy offer and those driven by principle to vote for a review of profitability. When band newcomer Gloria’s role in supporting that review is revealed, the dirtiest word of all – scab – stops everyone in its tracks. For Phil, a hero of the ’84 strike now deeply in debt, it is his conscience calling him out, with the most tragic of consequences.
And through it all, the band plays on. When Gloria stuns us with her solos in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (‘the Orange juice’) and then is supported sumptuously by the rest of the horns, it’s simply, well, Glorious. When the TCTC Group Band from Crewe play the Florentiner March from the circle as the cast band stagger on stage through the 14 pubs in the Saddleworth Festival, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. By the time we reach Jerusalem and Danny Boy it’s wet eyes and lumps in the throat. And the William Tell Overture still to come!
Exiting the theatre, I overheard a punter say “That were right good. I’m coming back to see it again.” I urge you to join him.