Brassed Off

Adapted by Paul Allen, based on a screenplay by Mark Herman
Touring Consortium Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Octagon Theatre Bolton
The Lyceum, Sheffield
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From the rapturous response of the audience to last night’s touring production of Brassed Off at the Sheffield Lyceum, it felt as the production had ‘come home’ to South Yorkshire.

There can be little doubt that many in the audience had lived through or were emotionally close to the events of the Miners' Strike and the subsequent decimation of the coal industry with its knock on effect of destroying local community life.

Paul Allen’s adaptation for the stage of the screenplay by Mark Herman gives us all the advantages of live theatre: an excellent theatrical structure, well-rounded, recognisable characters, a lively local vernacular, witty exchanges, political commitment and emotional depth.

And all of this immeasurably enriched by the rich and resonant tone of the Newstead Brass Band, supplemented by members of the cast. This is a play and a concert performance all in one.

The stage is dominated by a pit-head wheel with functional lift entrance (designer Dawn Allsop) which symbolically represents the community and plays an important part in the action. A simple but authentic street setting accommodates internal as well as external scenes, including pit-head showers and a variety of band performance venues.

The action centres on band conductor and grandfather Danny (John McArdle) and his absolute conviction that music can help the splintering community to retain its identity and solidarity.

The community, with its different attitudes to the pit closure and the promise of substantial compensation, is effectively represented by three families from the same street.

Sandra, movingly performed by Rebecca Clay, is a desperate mother, barely able to put food on the table, and decimated when her home and possessions are repossessed. Her husband Phil (Andrew Dunn) is torn between loyalty to his father and the needs of his family, and nearly gives up in despair.

Rita (Helen Kay) becomes a political activist, shouting slogans in the street. Gilly Tompkins as Vera, dreams of the lovely home she could make with the compensation money, and buddies Harry and Jim, (Andrew Roberts-Palmer and Kraig Thornber), close ranks after the pit is shut down and become increasingly bitter towards the colliery management and anyone connected with it.

Love interest is provided by Clara Darcy as Gloria and James Robinson as Andy. As a returnee, born in Grimethorpe, Gloria is eligible to play in the band, and gives a sparkling solo performance as an audition piece.

But the relationship is blighted when it transpires that Gloria works for the colliery management (albeit with sympathy for the miners) and is subsequently ostracised by Andy and the rest of the community.

The narrative is held together by Shane (Luke Adamson) grandson of Danny, who effectively and amusingly represents the young boy who is a keen observer of unfolding events.

Director Damien Cruden brings variety to the staging of the band performances. We first see the rehearsal which introduces Gloria to the band.

Later we follow the band on a series of drunken peregrinations around local towns, during which they slip lower and lower down the league table.

Sometimes the band plays backstage, most effectively when John McArdle faces the audience in a skilful and convincing display of conducting technique. And, finally, all leads to the Albert Hall, and a proper concert performance, with an inspiring rendition of Land of Hope and Glory.

This is a joyful production, full of contrasts, serious and plangent, comic and entertaining, focussing on individual experience in a broader socio-political context. The Sheffield audience was undoubtedly partisan, informed and moved by the events at Grimethorpe, and appreciative of the quality of each musical item, which was enthusiastically applauded.

The warmth of the audience response was an important part of the theatrical experience.

Reviewer: Velda Harris