brassed miners

Pictures: Pamela Raith    

Brassed Off

Derby Theatre


I experienced a classic moment during the evening. At the bar I made conversation with a fellow drinker now referred to as the man at the bar (TMATB). "Have you seen this before? " I enquired. TMATB replied, "Several times, have you? And did you like it?"

 Enthusiastically I continued: “Yes, It’s one of my favourite pieces of theatre". TMATB replied "And mine, I wrote it". At which point Paul Allen revealed himself, and offered numerous brilliant anecdotes.

As I prepared to leave for the theatre at tea time, the news was dominated by a Conservative Government abandoning the North at their party conference, the previous week had been dominated by mass job losses at local employer Wilco. Brassed off may have been written thirty years ago, but it is a story for our times.

Key to the success of this production is live music onstage in the shape of the Derwent Brass band based in Belper, Derbyshire. The rich plangent tones of brass have a unique quality, rousing, melancholic and nostalgic, and the evening treated us to a mini concert within the play, each number earning deserved extended applause. An audience member told me that she had only come, knowing nothing of the story, because she liked brass bands.

The film upon which the stage play is based is amongst the finest observations of British social history in the past half century, many of the audience will have seen it. As time moves on, the direct connection of audience members to the political social history will inevitably wane – yet the link in Derbyshire remains strong.

The film was released in 1996. Paul Allen's theatrical adaptation was first seen at the Sheffield Crucible in 1998 after Harvey Weinstein, then of Miramax, who owned the rights to the story, gave him permission to produce a stage version which saved the Crucible theatre from bankruptcy.

I saw the 2015 production which hitherto has been the theatrical high water mark of Derby’s recent history. It retains several of the original cast and creative talent.

Pivotal to the story’s success are band conductor and leader Danny, and Gloria, new band member and management interloper.

gloria and andy

Seren Sandham-Davies as Gloria with Thomas Wingfield as Andy

 reprises her role as Gloria. The part of Danny is now played by Gareth Williams, who brilliantly drives the band, and production, with his obsessive commitment to music and the legacy it offers. Only at the end is he riven with doubt as he delivers an oration on the social injustice of the mine closures in a spine tingling moment.

Sandham-Davies has a tough job, not only does she have to take a principal role, she also needs to play lead parts with a flugelhorn. A criteria for the part which thinned out the audition process a little! Fortunately, not only is Seren an accomplished musician, but she also plays Gloria with considerable aplomb. Feisty and articulate, and sexy with it, she charms both the defecting band members and audience. Gloria longs to belong. She has returned to her hometown, childhood sweetheart and industry which her family worked in at a time when all those things are disappearing as she knew them. That underpins the part, and is well portrayed by a fine young actress.

The huge advantage of the staged version over celluloid is the emotional, visceral impact of a live brass ensemble blowing through music such as Puccini’s Nessun Dorma with skill and brio. Tara Fitzgerald in the film merely had to mime the fiendishly difficult flugelhorn solos – Seren performs them live.

The original Concierto de Aranjuez is replaced by Nessun Dorma due to Rights issues, and some of the dialogue has moved, but otherwise this reprises the 2015 production.

In supporting roles, Lee Toomes (Jim) and Howard Chadwick (Harry) delight and entertain as comedy double act friends. Chadwick has the physique of a miner who probably didn’t need mechanical tools, whilst Harry has the best line of the night as the numbers who might vote for the redundancy package are assessed:” “Nobody ever says they voted Tory either, but somehow the buggers keep getting in.”

Jo Mousely (Sandra) is wonderful as the mother of four trying to keep the family together whilst bailiffs systematically strip the house.

Paul Allen has done an excellent job adapting Mark Herman’s screenplay for the stage, this is no pallid facsimile of the film. Stage designer Ali Allen opts for a largely minimalist kitchen sink set depicting working class homes and silhouettes of an industrial landscape. The harrowing suicide scene is graphically, and spectacularly, set against the backdrop of the pit head wheel.

Director Sarah Brigham is a stickler for accuracy, and handles the politics well, and sympathetically, never hectoring or lecturing. The placards and picket line chants are revisited exactly. That authenticity, light touch , and attention to detail is an integral part of this scintillating, emotional and compelling production which deservedly evoked a standing ovation at the close. Brassed Off runs until Saturday 28th October. Unmissable.

Gary Longden


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