Wed 3 Jul

And the band played on…

Eileen Jones from Stagey Lady, reviews Brassed Off 'The entire production is unashamedly political – as well as crude and raw and glorious in equal measure.'

Honestly, the schedule for opening night of this fantastic show was set before the date of the general election was announced. So this is clearly accidentally the best party political broadcast you’ll see during this campaign.

The politics of Brassed Off, based on the well-loved film and excellently adapted for the stage by Paul Allen (who was in the audience this night), are universal. Set thirty years ago, the themes and issues remain the same. The stark cruelty of poverty, injustice, divisions between those who (apparently) have and the have-nots, the importance of community (which a certain prime minister had tried, and failed, to abolish).

‘But above all the politics, more importantly, music and love and humour, and Brassed Off has them all in pit shovels-full’

Alongside this, the astonishing talent of the double-threat actor/musicians who can play leading roles and technically-demanding brass instruments at the same time. Here, in a co-production with Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, we had the local bonus with members of the Penrith Town Band. And if the passion and the pathos don’t hit you straight in the heart and gut, then the proximity of a superb brass band in this intimate theatre-in-the-round setting surely will.

The story is set ten years after the prolonged miners’ strike and the closure of much of Britain’s coal industry. A few pits survived, among them Grimley in deepest Yorkshire, whose colliery band are still dreaming to get to London and play in the Albert ‘all. “Long after the last P45 there’ll still be music,” says gritty conductor Danny (Russell Richardson). He’s incapable of understanding the fading public sympathy and the faltering support of miners’ wives. Rita (Maxine French) still parades with her Coal not Dole banner, while best friend Vera (Joanna Holden) barters: “I’ll come down to the picket line with you if you’ll come to Ikea with me.”

It’s a canny ploy to see the narrative unfold through the eyes of an eight-year old, and here’s young rascal Shane played with delicious veracity by considerably older Andrew Turner. His mam Sandra (Daneka Etchells) struggles with two other children and a small baby, unable to make ends meet but determined to feed her flock while husband Phil (Joey Hickman) blows everything they have on a second-hand trombone. These are deeply touching performances, Sandra’s exhausted exasperation, and Phil’s pathos-ridden clowning before he tries – unsuccessfully – to hang himself.

Harry and Jim (Matt Ian Kelly and Greg Patmore) are bandsmen and buddies, torn between the offer of a big redundancy payoff and the battle to keep the colliery alive. Recent retropectives on the 1984 dispute and how the pit closures killed off entire communities have given more insight into the nature of mining. Men who would work in the dark, filling their lungs with coal dust, because it gave them a sense of worth. The pits went, entire villages became ghost settlements, because no one thought about the humanity behind the labour.

Then there’s the love story, principled Andy (Barney Taylor) who falls again for his teenage sweetheart Gloria (Hannah Woodward) when she arrives to join the band, while ostensibly working for the management. And like so many women of the real mining drama, she’s the one with the principles who makes things happen.

The entire production is unashamedly political – as well as crude and raw and glorious in equal measure.

There’s Danny’s anguished lament: “If this lot were seals or whales, you’d all be up in arms, but they’re just men,” which would resonate with many an activist today. And as he makes his grand (and final gesture) in the Albert ‘all, with his band winning the national championships at last, he takes up the baton for the “anthem of the Tory party” Land of Hope and Glory. “We’ll steal it back from them; I’ve got plenty of land under my fingernails.”

It’ll make you cry. And with only one show left before polling day, it might even make you go out and vote after all.

Brassed Off plays till July 27. Tickets and details:

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