Brassed Off

Paul Allen, based on a screenplay by Mark Herman

York Theatre Royal, Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Octagon Theatre Bolton

York Theatre Royal

From 14 February 2014 to 01 March 2014

Review by Mark Smith

Paul Allen’s stage adaptation of the much-garlanded 1996 film about community spirit and coalmine closures in the fictional Northern town of Grimley captures much of the film’s heart, and is here given a sympathetic and polished production.

Damian Cruden ably directs a large ensemble cast which also incorporates local community involvement in the form of a splendid brass band, hence building on the theatre’s previous successes with Two Planks and A Passion, Blood + Chocolate, and of course the 2012 Mystery Plays.

Opening with an atmospheric scene in which Shane, this adaptation’s young narrator figure (Luke Adamson), explores the surface of the now long-dormant pit, the production swiftly launches into a feel-good world of laddish banter and bright, colourful lighting and design. Dawn Allsopp conjures this superbly and, with Mark Howland’s lighting design, hardly puts a foot wrong.

But the play does not shy away from the anguish of the miners in a world where there’s ‘nowt in fridge except frigging light’. While lines like these are weighted (and delivered) to arouse chuckles, the script moves slyly from such gentle reminders of the hardships in question, to more outright and vehement statements about the politics of a distant Tory government insisting on cuts for ideological reasons rather than understanding the people whose lives they will affect or even, on their own terms, the real economic consequences of the decisions they’re enforcing.

The ensemble cast performs well, with ‘the lads’ creating a good sense of camaraderie and fun, particularly in an amusing sequence around the band’s outing to a competition in Lancashire. James Robinson as Andy is quite not as central as Ewan McGregor’s incarnation in the film, but he is winningly gawky and a plausible object of Gloria’s (Clara Darcy) affections.

Darcy is likewise charming and (like most of the cast) can really play—her flugelhorn solo is fantastic. One aspect which is somewhat watered down in this stage version is that Gloria’s arrival in the band cannot quite create the same ripples, given that the ensemble we see onstage is (understandably) not the all-male band of the film.

However, many of the film’s set-piece speeches are transferred fairly directly, and though Phil’s (Andrew Dunn) incarnation as Coco the Clown is rather hurriedly, and confusingly, introduced, he is still given the monologue about God creating the Tory party, and delivers it well.

Luke Adamson, as the aforementioned Shane (Phil’s nine-year-old son), is as delightful as the rest of the cast, capturing the inquisitive, fearless mind of a pre-teen without affectation and with a simple sense of fun.

John McArdle, playing the Pete Postlethwaite role of Danny, is not given as much to do, but is powerful and moving, acquitting himself particularly well in the rousing final speech.

For some of the adaptation it feels like the stage version is simply trying to keep up with the film—working in all the big speeches as mentioned, and occasionally sacrificing theatricality for efforts to fit it all in. But at the end there is a beautiful and simple piece of stagecraft at which the action is momentarily left in suspension—an effect not really possible on film. This is an assured production which is both entertaining and, on occasion, really quite timely.

One last caveat: the climactic rendition of that ‘bloody Tory anthem’ "Land of Hope and Glory" left a strange taste in the mouth. In the film this is bitterly ironised by the close-up of Postlethwaite’s inscrutable face, and by the superimposed text. The play sacrifices some of the work it has done towards this politicisation, by opting instead for the feel-good Last Night of the Proms ending—even complete with Union Flag waving from the younger cast members.

In the current political moment, and in tribute to the epoch it depicts, a braver production might have ended in the previously mentioned point of suspension, the younger generation picking up the baton but uncertain whose tune to march to.