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BRASSED OFF Theatre Royal, York – now touring

LET THE BAND PLAY ON

Billy Elliott, The Full Monty, now Brassed Off –   thirty years on from the loss of pits and steelworks,  we seem to need a national rite of mourning and expiation, acknowledgement of  the social violence which dismantled old  industrial Britain and its communities. All three shows, now onstage, began as films:  but rituals, after all, are best performed live.

Mark Herman’s tale (adapted for the stage by Paul Allen)  tells of a colliery set to close,  its mining families living in anxiety and uneasy dispute (for there is £ 20,000  a head compensation offered, and some will vote for it).  Grimley’s pride is its brass band, and in that too there are some who want to finish and others – especiallly bandleader Danny (John McArdle)  who demand that it play on , just as in real life, Grimethorpe did.  In a hundred years, says Danny, it survived “seven strikes, two disasters, two world wars and a bloody great Depression”. It must endure.

Perched on a set of towering pithead machinery  young Shane – eight years old when it all happened – tells the story and sometimes descends to act his eight-year-old self,   the son of Phil and grandson of Danny. Luke Adamson is a pleasing Shane at both ages; his mother Sandra (Rebecca Clay) expresses the weariness of the women.   Indeed the wives help to make the story real:  campaigning for the men’s jobs yet impatient with their band pastime   (“..but at least you know what they’re up to when they’ve got their ands full of tuba”).

The heart of it is Phil:  Andrew Dunn  is  always a dryly beguiling actor, espcially brilliant (as in his superb Dinnerladies character)  as an essentially comic figure moving through a tragic situation.   He is part of that big, shining, defiantly manly band onstage:  great credit to the splendid players of the real  York Brass, under Nicholas Eastwood.  But his trombone keeps breaking, and he wrecks his marriage when he spends money he doesn’t have to buy a new one out of loyalty.
The script is not always as strong as the plot line itself:  Clara Darcy’s  Gloria arrives with her flugelhorn to join the band  (very good she is too) and is revealed as a Coal Board statistician;  her romance with the conflicted Andy nicely demonstrates the class gulf that yawns when one kid gets educated and the other stays down the pit (“Why couldn’t you have come back as a hairdresser?” asks Andy sadly.)    There are some wonderful set pieces, not least the band’s increasingly drunk march through a competition and its  heartbreaking distant “Danny Boy” as the bandmaster lies ill and the pit is closing.   And it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the final coup de théatre in Land of Hope and Glory.  It’s  one to catch, a proper taste of a vanished England.

But I can’t not mention one inexplicable directorial decision by the otherwise surefooted Damien Cruden,   which dents its shine.    A play about the power of live music and harmonious collaboration does not need to mark its (perfectly smooth) scene changes with blasts of canned pop.  It’s not a film: that surely is the point?    Bad enough to have Pulp’s patronizing “Common People”,  but why mark a romantic moment with a few bars of Moon River,   pipe in a semi-audible outbreak of “The Lost Chord” during the ballot scene, and (aaagh!)  even after the perfectly apt brass-band mourning of “Jerusalem” during Phil’s attempted suicide,  some half-remembered pop tune?

One duff decision can’t mar the ritual – and bracingly polemic – splendour of the evening, or the impact of the live band.  There’s a long tour (details below) and it deserves to be seen. But I hope someone bravely pulls the plug on the canned link-music, and lets the brass mouths thunder out their message unhindered.

TOURING  :   Nottingham TR this week, 4-8 March (0115 989 5555)
tour continues nationwide to 10 May – details  http://theatrecloud.com/brassed-off/tour-info

rating:  three    3 Meece Rating

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