Fri 5 Jul

“…as grimy as the pit it is from yet full of Yorkshire humour.”

Ken Powell of Northern Arts Review, all things theatre in the North, reviews Brassed Off at Theatre by the Lake

Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (TBTL), in partnership with Octagon Theatre Bolton and Stephen Joseph Theatre, have produced an astonishing adaptation of Mark Herman’s 1996 movie. Scantily disguised as fiction but based on real events in Grimethorpe, this very northern comedy is as deep as the coal mines most of the characters work in, and so relevant to our current times it almost touches a nerve.

“The play centres around the colliery at ‘Grimley’ facing pressure to close despite being a viable and even profitable pit”

Many employees also play in the brass band associated with the pit and it is these characters we focus on as the play progresses. Things come to ahead for both the band (that can’t exist without the colliery) and the workers as voting takes place to either accept redundancy (with a much-needed large pay-off) or keep fighting and risk losing everything.

It will be strange to say this, considering what I’m about to write, but this is an excellent comedy that will have you giggling throughout, right to the end, and has some real feel good moments, very much helped by the cracking toe-tapping music played by the brass band. Those of us who remember growing up with Terry Wogan on the radio immediately started bom-bom-bomming as soon as the Floral Dance started. And that was just the opener!

“But all this hi-jinks and shenanigans has a background of grime, sweat and many tears”

From the minute you walk into the theatre (set in the round as TBTL love doing at the moment), you’re in a coalmine with music by Matthew Malone where he has tapped into his inner Pink Floyd at their most surreal. It’s not what you expect from a comedy, but it makes perfect sense by the end.

There are difficult issues dealt with including the trigger warning that suicide is more than strongly hinted at. Depression, marital strife, financial hardships are key motifs running throughout, although the key theme is perhaps, more than anything else, loyalty to your community and to your ‘band’ in whatever form that is.

The actors, as always with TBTL productions, have been well chosen. Andrew Turner – who was so beautifully brilliant in Every Brilliant Thing at TBTL last year – plays the boy-man narrator, Shane; ever-present but mostly smiling with fondness as we all watch his memories of those dark times in the 1990s. He’s a delight. I can’t help but hope the actor is as lovely as the characters he inevitably plays. He makes them beautiful.

Joanna Holden has to get a shout out as the hilarious and indomitable Vera – one of the three wives central to this story. I could watch her carry on all night and the character I would love to have in my community. Hannah Woodward is, of course, absolutely hot as the girl-come-home that gets the male-dominated band all of a stir. Hats off to her for having to play Nessun Dorma rather exposed not long after she enters the stage. Not easy. Her interactions with Andy (played with great empathy by Barney Taylor) are very convincing as she struggles to be accepted by the band while their romance blossoms.

“And thinking of the actual playing, perhaps the ‘star’ of the show you could be forgiven for never knowing ‘it’ was there”

You’re so focused on the characters it is easy to miss members of Penrith Town Band joining in the band sessions when they play. While the actors are all very capable players (I still don’t know how TBTL manages to get such talent, show after show, when other theatres just can’t), there’s no doubt that these real band members swell the sound and expertise giving us all but flawless perfomances that had this reviewer playing brass band music all day straight after.

I am saving a space in my heart though for the father and son dynamics coming from Joey Hickman (playing Phil) and Russell Richardson (playing his father and bandleader, Danny). In many ways, the play is really about the pair of them. True northern men of mining stock, never able to speak their true feelings except through the mutual loves – music and the colliery. The issue of male depression and inability to express feelings is more than pertinent – still – today. These actors communicated all this superlatively.

“Indeed, there’s much about this play that makes it superbly relevant to our current times”

TBTL could not have known this when planning the summer season but, at the time of writing, we’re all about to go to the ballot box ourselves, voting for change or (less likely) not and questioning what will come next after fourteen miserable years of our own struggle as a nation. A warning for true diehard Conservative supporters (are there any such people left?) – there’s more than one mickey-take specifically aimed at that political party and the audience clearly appreciated it. Another thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years.

I grew up in a coal mining town in the midlands during the exact period this story deals with. I remember it all, first hand, as a child just like our narrator, Shane. I recall the marching bands at every big town event and I recall the pain that came with the strikes and the closures of the pits. Brassed Off brings it all back – some good memories, some not so good. For those of us of a certain age, this is tearful, yet joyful, nostalgia, To anyone younger, this is lived history that should be experienced to really understand where we are today.

“This then is a play as grimy as the pit it is from yet full of Yorkshire humour”

It is distinctly northern, wonderfully British and truly presents us at our absolute best as a nation. Deep and real, Brassed Off manages to fill the theatre with joy and hope right to the end. You have got to see it.

Brassed Off plays at Theatre by the Lake until Sat 27 July. More info click here.

Ken Powell is chief editor for Northern Arts Review and is also a bestselling author and writer for various publications around the world. A former school teacher, he continues to write educational books along with fiction and travelogues. You can find all his books and various websites here including his popular TEDx talk about the Global Village. He lives with his family in a wonderfully isolated village in West Cumbria where he enjoys drinking tea, chatting with the birds and winding up his dog.