Review: Brassed Off at the Everyman Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:54 31 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:01 31 March 2014

The brass band competing in the Saddleworth Brass Band competition, Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby Clark

The brass band competing in the Saddleworth Brass Band competition, Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby Clark

©Nobby Clark nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Katie Jarvis reviews Brassed Off at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, a play set ten years after the ruinous miners' strike of 1984-5 in the fictional town of Grimley.

John McArdle (Danny) in Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby ClarkJohn McArdle (Danny) in Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby Clark

“I thought that MUSIC mattered. But does it bollocks! Not compared to how people matter.”

I’ve recently read Jonathan Aitken’s most excellent Thatcher biography, but there’s one thing I can say with confidence: there’s not a lot in there that would inspire a musical. At a push, you could stage Westland Side Story (Leon Brittan singing, “OK by me in America”), maybe; Maggie as Maria, Heseltine as Rosalia. Or there’s My Fair Lady (Maggie takes lessons to deepen her voice); not to mention Fiddler on the Roof (unlimited candidates for lead role) and, ultimately, Les Miserables.

Luke Adamson (Shane) and Andrew Dunn (Phil) in Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby ClarkLuke Adamson (Shane) and Andrew Dunn (Phil) in Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby Clark

OK, OK. But certainly not the miners’ strike, anyway. Not from the point of view of the Tory party or the National Coal Board.

But nip to the other side of the row - the men swinging their picks and exploding the dynamite miles underground - and what a story! Miners, music, metaphor, money. What fertile ground for the brilliance that is Brassed Off.

Luke Adamson (Shane) in Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby ClarkLuke Adamson (Shane) in Brassed Off / Photo: Nobby Clark

And it’s a complicated story. One that, while it enthralls and entertains superbly, also has that uncomfortable edge. Here we are - the well-fed Cheltenham audience - being amused and made to laugh by lives that are on the edge. Lives led by people who faced the end not just of a job but of a whole way of life, generations old. What’s more, while this might be a fictionalised account, these are lives that were genuinely lived, and not that long ago. Grimley, the location for Brassed Off, might be a village created in screenwriter Mark Herman’s mind, but it wasn’t a million miles away from the Yorkshire settlement of Grimethorpe, once named by the EU as the poorest in Britain.

And these are men - and especially women; the women were key in the miners’ strike actions, of course - who fought for their subterranean lives; lives some of us would have avoided like the plague. As Andy Birchall, a former Lancashire miner, explains in the Cheltenham Everyman programme, here were workers who faced death and serious injury on a regular basis. “It was an unwritten rule that we would put our lives on the line for one another… I often wonder - is it possible to have such strong bonds without such harsh working environments.”

Who knows? I don’t. I’m not sure Andy does. But I do know that this dangerous and deadly industry welded families together as firmly as the girders that formed the mines’ solid structures. Much of that solidarity took place below ground; but it appeared, in musical form, in the colliery bands: men in harmony, each playing their part, desperately craving recognition from the outside world.

The play - Paul Allen’s adaptation - takes place 10 years after the ruinous strike of 1984-5 (30 years ago this year), which brought a close not just to mines but to the might of the trade unions in the British coal mining industry. We open with a scene of grim hopelessness: overturned furniture, an empty pram, and - always - the endlessly turning wheels of the mine lift cage. Into this scene of hopelessness - (“The only reason I get up in the morning is to see if my luck’s changed. And it never bloody has”) - walks the lovely Gloria (Clara Darcy), returning to her home town. A brilliant flugelhorn player, she charms her old boyfriend, Andy (James Robinson), along with the rest of the colliery band. What they don’t know, however, is that she’s ‘on the other side’: sent by British Coal to determine the profitability of the pit.

So there’s romance. Of course, there’s romance. But there’s also the steely determination, the moral dilemmas, the anger, the bitterness, the despair and the rugged humour of a northern community under threat. And what a superb cast carries it all off. There’s Luke Adamson as Shane, the narrator, whose childhood was blighted by the arguments of his parents; the feisty despair of his mother, struggling to feed her brood; his father - desperately trying to make ends meet. And his grandfather (John McArdle), gasping to keep together the band he conducts like a man struggling for his last breath.

There’s Rebecca Clay as Sandra, Andrew Dunn as Phil, Helen Kay as Rita - a whole host of superb actors who bring to life a community that can laugh as well as cry. There’s something about the North that never bears a tragedy without a self-deprecating gaffaw.

And to add to the charm - the Flowers Band, pride of Gloucester - plays through it all.

And if parts of it are as cliche as a brass band playing the Floral Dance, well, who cares. The point is, we love it.

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This review of Brassed Off is by Katie Jarvis - for more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis

Brassed Off was at the Everyman, Cheltenham, March 25-29

Everyman Theatre, Regent Street, Cheltenham GL50 1HQ, 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk

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