Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Brassed Off’, which is at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre until Saturday 12th April, and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from April 23rd to 26th.
David Cameron should be worried. With an election looming, the last thing he needs is a troupe of committed thespians going round the country firmly reminding the electorate of the inglorious, uncaring attitude of his most famous predecessor.
In the darkest moment of ‘Brassed Off’, Phil, a penniless, jobless, miner climbs the winding tower dressed as a pantomime clown with a real noose round his neck. Before attempting to end his despair, he delivers a couple of vintage anti-Tory gags that had last night’s Wolverhampton audience applauding loudly. He then jumps off, whilst the band plays the anthem the Conservative Party so brazenly purloined at the time; ‘Jerusalem’.
This new production of ‘Brassed Off’ is selling out anywhere north of the M25; partly because of Paul Allen’s excellent and inventive adaptation of one of the Nation’s favourite films, and partly because passions about the political decision to close our pits and/or the violent 1980s miners’ strike, run as deep as the black stuff itself. The production uses the Grimly Colliery Banner as a rallying flag of remembrance for a lost way of life, and when the bandleader takes his final bow, it rises slowly to the Heavens.
This is a cracking night in the theatre, expertly and emotionally underpinned by some beautifully empathetic playing by Shropshire’s wonderful Jackfield Band. Technically they’re amateurs, but you’d never know. ‘Danny Boy’ still raises a tear and their thundering ‘William Tell Overture’ was more than good enough to grace the Royal Albert Hall.
Even unseen, they make a huge impact. The most desolate event that faces Phil is the departure of his starving family. The scene is played as a dumb show with the bandleader facing the audience to conduct ‘Florentina’. It’s a lovely piece of unlikely staging that lets the music do the talking.
Andrew Dunn is a very fine Phil…a man who’s been trapped by enclosing walls for so long he’s helpless at everything, even suicide. Dunn does ‘despair’ extremely well, whether juggling a disintegrating trombone or trying to tell his dying Dad the band’s packing it in.
No actor can trump Shropshire’s Pete Postlethwaite’s film portrayal of bandleader Danny, as John McArdle unfortunately proves. Trying hard not to sip from Postlethwaite’s poisoned chalice, he’s strangely anonymous – even when making that impassioned Albert Hall speech.
But he’s counterbalanced by two wonderful women.
Rebecca Clay rips into her part like a tigress defending her cubs… helplessly loyal to everything her life encompasses but blunt to the bone about the uselessness of it all. Whilst in Clara Darcy, the company has found an actress that can coyly seduce with her charms and her cornet.
Stepping on stage cold to play Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ at competition standard is one of the toughest asks of modern day musical theatre and the Jackfield Band’s applause for her was not merely acting.
The play is earthily funny and archeologically authentic; bringing to the surface the Coal Board’s devious determination to close even the most profitable mines, and the Government’s wanton discarding of entire hard working communities who were effectively bribed into throwing away their futures.
Thirty years on we need even more energy. So coal is being shipped in from Australia – or bought from Colombian concerns that still send children down the pit.
All that remains to be proud of from this dismal debacle is the music. And now the Government is axing grants to undermine even that.
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