Writer: Mark Herman
Adaptor: Paul Allen
Director: Conrad Nelson
Reviewer: Mel Duncan
Revived in recognition of the 30-year anniversary of the 1984 miner’s strike, Brassed Off has been enjoying the limelight in performances, professional and amateur, up and down the country. The poignant tale of a community brought to their knees by a Government not fully understanding the implications of decisions made far removed from the grassroots where the impact is felt cannot heed more of a warning knell in such inconsistent and troubled political times.
Strangely, this is the type of performance which will more fully engage an audience when presented by a team with an understanding of the struggles, often with feet firmly planted somewhere within a similar community. The New Vic has hit the nail on the head with the production decisions, surrounding the production with individuals poised to cherish the narrative, and bring it sensitively to an audience. Firmly understanding their audience allows them to challenge and entertain in equal measure, through the fabric of the material presented, rather than reliance on showy, on-trend additions with questionable relevance. This is a venue with great theatrical integrity.
Conrad Nelson is firmly invested in bringing the stories of working class Britain to the stage – his impressive body of work with Northern Broadsides and his own company Claybody Theatre (a joint venture with Deborah McAndrew) puts the narrative firmly at the fore. His hand in this piece is clearly seen from the opening chord to the final cutoff. His skill as a musician is also evident in staging considerations.
To find actor-musicians with an ability to play some brass is not rare – in fact the New Vic featured very talented brass players in their recent Christmas offering The Wind in the Willows. However to find actor-musicians with the ability, motivation, and understanding to pull off brass band playing while in the midst of a performance is no mean feat. Clara Darcy’s return to the role is an excellent choice, her flugel playing is assured and adds so much to the ensemble, and alongside Howard Chadwick, Nicholas Shaw and Andy Cresswell the actors blend seamlessly into the full band –during the bigger numbers it is absolutely amazing to hear Cresswell’s warm, confident, euphonium sound supporting the upper lines.
Established brass bands are a close-knit community, and the final dimension of the collaboration for this production is cemented with the inclusion of the TCTC Group band. The band, having modernised through sponsorship, whilst maintaining their community ethos and provision of high standard musical education from beginner to competition level is a perfect example of the band model at stake within Brassed Off.
To stage this performance in the round is a brave decision, but works beautifully. The layout of the venue is used to the full, allowing a graceful fluidity to the action which reinforces the importance of the narrative. Lis Evans’ simple but clever design ensures that there is nothing on stage which detracts from the focus of the performance, yet sets the scene very definitely. Similarly, Daniella Beattie reinforces the gritty and stark nature of the story with a sympathetic lighting palette reminiscent of the miner’s lamps used to so evocatively open the show.
There is a genuine fostering of care and even love for the characters – such a difficult task to do without mimicry of the same characters from the beloved 1996 film. Paul Allen’s gritty and frank adaptation explores each of these individuals in more depth than the screenplay – particularly the women. Rita (Helen Sheals) torn between the pride for the cause, and the opportunity to visit the son who escaped the vicious circle. Vera (Natasha Lewis) and the focus on creating a beautiful home, in the absence of the children she had expected to fill it. Childhood sweetheart Sandra (Susie Emmett) is a heartbreaking vision on stage, a woman pushed to breaking point by elements out of her control – never once wavering in her love for her principled miner husband, but struggling to exist in the world these decisions create. Susie Emmett brings such a quiet, understated strength and beauty to a character in which it would be so easy to radiate pity from. There is a dignity to these women which is further strengthened by the addition of a superb community company, standing strong on the picket line.
The juxtaposition of the stiff upper lip and vulnerability echoes throughout the male characters. William Fox, faced with a tricky and complex path, manages to show Phil as a character full of integrity and unsupported by those establishments within society intended to uphold the authenticity he chooses to live by. The entire company present the piece with such an awe-inspiring humble sincerity – there is no needless showmanship as the band present difficult musical repertoire, and then drift seamlessly back into the rehearsal room.
At the centre of the entire piece rests Danny, a world-weary man with only music as a reliable handhold in an ever-changing landscape. Martin Barrass beautifully presents us with this conflicted man, even down to the restrained conducting style favoured by Brass Band conductors.
Arguably, this is the most engaging presentation of Brassed Off one has had the honour to experience. Something magical has gelled within the company at the New Vic during the rehearsal period, and for a short spell, time itself is suspended.
Runs until June 22 2019 | Image: Mark Douet