Review: Brassed Off. Derby Theatre

Brassed Off is easily in my top five favourite films. The Full Monty is up there. Dead Man’s Shoes, London to Brighton, Kes: they all depict England’s truth, grit and bare knuckles. I’ll always select them over any other genre, because it’s the kind of England I want to know about. They’re vital for us to realise exactly where and how the impact of our cultural and economic circumstances hits the hardest. They document our history and allow for enormous retrospect and clarity, in a way that I don’t quite understand how the same mistakes are made. I don’t think many do this better than Brassed Off, and I can’t think of better people than tonight’s collection of compelling cast and creatives to adapt the story so faithfully, and with such essential resonance.

The original 1996 film written by Mark Herman is based on real events of Grimethorpe, a West Yorkshire Village that was once considered to be the most deprived village in the country. Paul Allen has adapted the screenplay, and, along with Director Sarah Brigham, pays tremendous dedication to the many people these characters represent. I am overwhelmed by the empathy and nuance; they must have felt it compulsory to tell this story with every shade of conviction and fact. If we think we know all about a cost-of-living crisis, just ask these striking miners of Grimley colliery, 1992 – they’re experiencing every unyielding aspect. And for all their clashes and resilience against a continuous Conservative government, I feel somewhat ashamed to break the news to them – they won’t find much improvement twenty-one years later.

We’re focussing on colliery workers, Andy, Harry, Jim & Phil, all embittered about the threat of their pits closure. With steadfast determination to challenge the board eroding around them, they are each, in their own way, pragmatic in the likelihood that most of their workmates will vote for the closure and redundancy due to an increased offer. It’s a decision that Phil – dangerously in debt and pushed to the edge – is afraid to consider. It would appease his long-suffering wife, Sandra, and finally put food in their cupboards, but would render him nothing more than a ‘scab’ within his community; a word reserved for the worst kind of disloyalty.  

Phil’s dad, Danny, is bandmaster for the colliery’s brass band. Himself a former pit worker, he’s all too familiar with the current difficulties but remains resolute that the band must play on no matter the outcome of the pit. Danny yearns to lead them to victory at a national competition at the Albert Hall but struggles to focus the band’s energy and commitment due to the current circumstances. However, a ray of hope enters the practice room when Gloria, Andy’s childhood girlfriend, returns home and joins the band as a talented flugelhorn player. This seems to revive Danny’s passion, but when her true reason for returning is apparent, things become even more fraught.

The backbone of this phenomenal show is the inclusion of the award-winning brass band, Derwent Brass, who charge this narrative with all the oompah required. They play alongside the cast, and it’s having them here tonight that electrifies an already palpable atmosphere.

Jimmy Fairhurst tenderly handles his depiction of Phil; it’s a performance I’ll never forget. On a collision course of desperation and hopelessness, Phil’s driven to the brink and hounded by the brutal symptoms of poverty left right and centre. Kept afloat by his family and the band, these relentless external forces seem to relish drowning him for it. He has the stage to himself during the most harrowing of moments – he’s terrific. I hear a member of the audience try to stifle her tears beside me. Another behind me doesn’t even try to.

Gareth Williams as Danny is faultless. Staunched in pride, nostalgia and hard work; he reproaches the men for even thinking of giving up the band. Initially he seems determined to the point perhaps of cruel ignorance, especially considering his sons predicament, but his steely will makes me understand that he’s the one who’s seeing things clearly. The pit may well close, that’s out of their hands, but the band has no coal board and no government overseeing them. It only needs the players it has and if they let that go, their village really will have nothing. The band reminds me of the thousands of music and arts clubs and programmes that have been slashed over the years; opportunities ripped away from people who need it the most by those who need it the least.

Thomas Wingfield’s portrayal of Andy is energetic and sincere. Clearly astute and able to read the terrain, Andy’s loyalty to his workmates is commendable. Quickly established as a jack-the-lad, he’s clearly so much more. His popularity is endearing as is his regard for his colleagues.

Phil’s nine-year-old son, Shaun, is played by Fraser Fowkes tonight. What a job this lad’s got?! He balances the innocence and security only a child from a loving family can feel, against the damage his reality is causing daily. What a talent; the audience is immediately in love with him and never stops.

Seren Sandham-Davies is our Gloria; bright eyed, bushy tailed, with bounds of loveliness shining through. Gloria’s perhaps been away from a working man’s town for too long; cynicism is yet to take hold and she fights admirably to keep the pit open. Sandham-Davies does a fine job of ensuring her character is as pure hearted as she is brave – she’s wonderful to watch.                                             

Best friends and long-time pit colleagues, Harry (Howard Chadwick) and Jim (Lee Toomes) are the very epitome of a dynamic duo. Exceptional comic timing from both actors lends frequent moments of timeless Yorkshire humour. But as inevitability begins to pull apart the comraderies, both actors establish their characters conflicting feelings through refined skill.

Their wives, Rita (Kate Wood) and Vera (Lisa Allen) represent their fear and anger through ardent support and immovable loyalty. Vera – having a central position within the community enabling her to see most people’s financial agony – dares to contemplate the possibilities a redundancy package can offer. Rita fights fearlessly along the picket line, but Wood so carefully demonstrates the characters deep rooted fear of the pit. Both actors convey these complicated variations of the awful situation perfectly, helping the audience to feel each moment fully.  

As phenomenal as the rest of the cast are, personally, I’ve got to give it to Jo Mousley as Phil’s wife, Sandra. I genuinely felt as though as I was watching a fly on the wall documentary as her story unfolded. Showing us examples of what countless parents are struggling with, Mousley bends herself with the anxiety and stress her character experiences. We desperately need her to carry on for the four children she has relying on her…but what an ask! Why do we expect so much of those with no resource? To expect her to stay upright, never fold, remain strong under pressures most would buckle at the thought of. Mousley is an honour to watch and its evident the cast have spent so much time researching their roles to execute with accuracy and reverence.

Set design is authentic with various touches of melancholy and class. And I do feel a sense of sadness looking at it – in a good way, I mean. Phil and Sandra’s kitchen is a regular point for action; their troubles denoted by a cramped, meagre room – you really feel their claustrophobia and isolation. The ballot box is particularly emotional; set against a bleak and ever-greying industrial backdrop – the employee’s decisions critical to each other, and yet eclipsed by its irrelevance and inevitability.

A sublime touch for me is the band’s uniform. Against their declining surroundings, they are proud and regal; no character has allowed their uniforms to look anything other than pristine. I see them as a symbol of their never-ending perseverance; a reflection of who they are as good people, no matter how much is thrown their way.

I’ve always felt that Brassed Off, despite all its charm and humour, is a graphic story of a cold and unyielding crisis; people backed into corners which only get sharper, narrower. The effect of a constant exposure is, for all too many of us, not that far around the corner.

It’s a standing ovation at the end. I wouldn’t have expected anything less for this kind of production; I think it means the world to every person here.

Looking over the fabulous cast in their band uniforms, I imagine what would happen if all our volunteers walked away and left their posts. The countless charities, food banks, after school clubs, sports clubs, scout leaders, soup kitchens – you can’t put a price on what they do…perhaps that why the government doesn’t even try? Pete Postlethwaite played Danny in the film, and he features in the opening lines of one of the defining songs of the nineties, ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba: ‘The truth is I thought it mattered, I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks. Not compared to how people matter’ 

And there you have it…with brass knobs on.

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