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Muck and Brass

BRASSED OFF

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th August, 2017

 

It’s been forty years since Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre produced a show of its own but now comes this new production of a time-honoured crowd-pleaser, Mark Herman’s stage adaptation of the much-loved British film.  Set in 1994, ten years after the miners’ strike and the pits are still under threat.  With closure in the air, the men are offered ‘bribes’ in the form of what might seem like generous redundancy pay-outs.  While the women of the community continue to protest and fight, the men fill their non-working hours with drinking and band practice.

Ash Matthews is Shane, our young, part-time narrator, guiding us back to those times.  Matthews, playing much younger than he is, is a likeable presence, capturing Shane’s ebullience and childish preoccupations.  Shane is an innocent trying to make sense of what the grown-ups are up to.

Ash Matthews (Shane) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Ash Matthews as Shane (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Christopher Connel is Shane’s dad, Phil, who is really struggling to make ends meet.  It’s difficult to put bread on the table when the bailiffs have taken the table.  Connel and Miriam Grace Edwards as wife Sandra, provide most of the emotional content of the show, as their marriage comes under strain, and Phil’s mental health declines.  In a moving and desperate speech, he spits out bitter jokes as he tightens a noose around his neck.  Connel is absolutely compelling.  It’s a dark moment in what is for the most part a story leavened with a lot of down-to-earth Northern humour – most of which comes from Jim and Harry (Greg Yates and Tim Jones) and their wives Rita and Vera (Donna Heaslip and Susie Wilcox).  It’s the womenfolk who talk sense in this piece.

Shane’s grandfather and Phil’s dad, Danny, is also the leader of the colliery band, striving to keep things going and get the band through heats of various competitions.  Jeffrey Holland (from Hi-de-Hi on the telly, and countless pantomime appearances as an exemplary Dame) is a revelation in this dramatic role, balancing the dry humour with passion.  Danny may have coal dust in his lungs but he also has fire in his belly.  A dying man, he is a metaphor for the coal industry, with capitalism as the disease that will kill him.

Eddy Massarella makes a strong impression as the directionless Andy, whose interest is aroused by the return of old flame Gloria (an excellent Clara Darcy) who blows a mean flugelhorn but has a hidden agenda.  Their thwarted love story falls second, however, to scenes that show the blight on the communities by Tory ideology – and it is here that the play retains its relevance.  It is people that matter, Danny declares in an impassioned speech, not making a bob or two – despite the way the Tories carry on to this day.

Director Gareth Tudor Price handles the tonal changes as assuredly as conductor Danny steers the music.  And what music it is!  From the bouncy Floral Dance to the searing Concerto d’Aranjuez and a stirring William Tell Overture, the brass band sound is gorgeous.  The cast is augmented by the City of Wolverhampton Brass Band and it’s a real treat for the ears.

I hope this show heralds a new era of in-house productions for the Grand.  This foul-mouthed but heart-warming story is a superb way to start.

Jeffrey Holland (Danny) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Jeffrey Holland as Danny (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

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BRASSED OFF

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th April, 2014

 

Writer Paul Allen has adapted Mark Herman’s screenplay to bring the much-loved British film to the stage,in this appealing, amusing and affecting production.  Allen introduces the device of a narrator, the eight-year-old Shane (played by a young-looking Luke Adamson) through whose eyes we see the lives of a fictional Yorkshire mining community in the 1990s.  Shane’s child’s-eye view simplifies the situation, focussing on the effects of a proposed and then inevitable pit closure on the domestic lives of the miners and their families.

As Shane’s mum Sandra, Rebecca Clay carries a lot of the emotional heat of the play, as she struggles to put food on the table.  The play only touches on the desperation, hardship and starvation of the people who were in this predicament.  The mining communities may have gone but child poverty is still very much with us under our present Tory (in all but name) government.  The script’s jibes at the Tories go down well but such is the overall nostalgic feel of the production, they may as well be joking about Hitler or Julius Caesar.

The miners play in a brass band, led by Danny (John McArdle off of Brookside) who stands for tradition and principle. Music is everything, he says, right up until a death bed conversion to the maxim that people are everything, and nothing matters if people don’t. McArdle is suitably gruff and hard-faced throughout.  Danny’s death coincides with the mine’s closure and therefore the disbanding of the band.  It’s the end of an era and men of principle like Danny (and the late Tony Benn) are all but extinct.

Andrew Dunn provides comedy and pathos as Phil, whose broken trombone is the least of his problems; James Robinson is the handsome Romeo whose budding relationship with Gloria (Clara Darcy) is threatened when it emerges she has been working for the evil management, boo hiss.  There is earthiness and coarse humour to the script- the cast as a whole hit the right note.

The music itself is a real treat.  The stirring rendition of Rodrigo’s Concierto d’Aranjuez is a showstopper, and there is a poignant version of Danny Boy that tugs the heartstrings.  The tour provides opportunities for local brass bands to perform alongside the actors.

Director Damian Cruden keeps the action fluid on Dawn Allsop’s multiple-location set, which keeps the pit head at the centre of it all. The setting (particularly with a grown man playing an eight-year old) reminds me of Blood Brothers, and there are echoes of The Pitman Painters in the story.  Unlike the latter, Brassed Off looks very much to the past.  I would prefer a bit more agit-prop with my pit-prop.  The characters may lose their fight but at least they stand up and fight.

It’s a cosy piece of entertainment with emotional if not political resonance.  The humour, the likeable cast and the wonderful music are what make this show worth seeing.

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