Writer: Mark Herman
Director: Damian Cruden
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Adaptations of films to the stage can be a lazy way of achieving quick audience approval. The expectations of the audience are easy to satisfy as they are determined by what they have seen in the past. Brassed Off, Paul Allen’s stage adaptation of Mark Herman’s screenplay, is a refreshing change of pace offering an exciting live experience that simply could not be created in the more sterile cinema environment.
In 1994 the Grimethorpe mining community is divided on whether to accept an offer of redundancy and allow the still profitable coal pit to close. The malaise is affecting the performance of the colliery band and conductor and retired miner Danny (John McArdle) is beginning to despair that the band are regarded as a laughing stock.
Paul Allen is at pains to avoid any sense of the clichéd warm-hearted working class environment. He depicts a society in which hard working decent people are treated like dirt and only swine prosper. Even the band is only too willing to be distracted from their sense of purpose by a quick pint.
Director Damian Cruden does not flinch from staging the author’s bleak vision. The brass band plays a mournful tune as the family of a miner is silently evicted from their home. This is an approach that ought to result in a thoroughly depressing show yet it actually has the uplifting effect of clarifying why the colliery band is so vital to the community. In an apparently uncaring society it is the only thing that rewards the work of participants and in which those involved can see their efforts have any result.
The challenge of finding a cast who can both act and play brass instruments is solved with elegant simplicity. The actors are supplemented by local bands that blast out stirring live music with a passion that thoroughly deserves the standing ovation on press night. Played in the intimate environs of The Octagon the sheer volume of the brass band music is incredibly exciting; you would have to be deaf or a politician to remain unmoved.
As well as creating an exciting show director Damian Cruden manages to balance the potentially dour subject matter with humanity and humour. Phil (Andrew Dunn), whose participation in the 1984 miner’s strike left him a hero’s reputation and a mountain of debts, is driven to attempt suicide. Cruden’s staging is full of symbolism, as Phil attempts to hang himself from the colliery wheel while wearing a clown’s outfit, and impressively Cruden manages to combine pathos with humour and even a degree of horror. Cruden knows when to just give the audience a bloody good laugh. A dignified voiceover during a crucial snooker match intones gravely ‘Oh f—k, he’s missed’.
John McArdle is perfect casting as the martinet conductor and delivers the closing speech with striking honesty and dignity. Andrew Dunn and Rebecca Clay give a heartbreakingly realistic portrayal of a couple pushed to breaking point by the desperation of poverty. Clara Darcy brings an understated edge of glamour and a fair degree of musical talent to the rôle of Gloria. Yet, appropriately for a show with a band as the central feature, its success is dependent upon a large group of individuals selflessly working in unison. This is an excellent ensemble.
This production of Brassed Off demonstrates that sometimes giving the audience what they want can be exactly the right thing to do. If only governments could learn that lesson.