In October 1992, Grimethorpe Colliery Band won the National Brass Band Championship literally days after Grimethorpe Colliery, near Barnsley, had closed and it is this true story, reworked to take place in Grimley, that gives us the gritty but warm-hearted drama, Brassed Off.
The story of the colliery and its brass band, in a world of pit closures and heroic working class solidarity, is told with a touch of comic exaggeration, but Brassed Off still catches a lot of the truth about those times, without turning into a history lesson. It tells us how hard it was to choose between lottery-style redundancy money and loyalty to tradition, the division between those who got on and those who didn’t in the Thatcher years, and what community pride really means.
The production has a functional set depicting the iconic pithead machinery and cottage street doorways, with room interiors wheeled on and off as required. This leaves plenty of room for the 12 cast members, 10 ensemble players and the 21 musicians of the Eastbourne Silver Band to fill the Devonshire Park theatre stage. Mixing the actors with the band members works very well meaning that, at times, it’s not easy to work out who’s who.
Jeffery Holland, as Danny the conductor, lacks the true grit that was a feature of the late Pete Postlethwaite’s performance in the film version, but he really succeeds in the more heartfelt scenes towards the end of the show, and delivers his final speech with true passion.
The miners, Phil (Christopher Connel), Jim (Greg Yates), Harry (Tim Jones) and Andy (Eddy Massarella) display the kind of cameraderie that we would expect to see, with equal helpings of friendly banter and mutual trust often found among people who spend a lot of time together.
As the picketing miner’s wives, Donna Heaslip as Rita and Úna McNulty as Vera, together with the female ensemble, chant there way through most of the show, stopping only to deal with the drudgery of their lives and to deal with their band and beer obsessed husbands. Miriam Grace Edwards, as mother-of- four Sandra delivers a superb performance as the woman who, following the crippling miner’s strike, watches her life fall apart before her very eyes.
Top honours in the production are shared equally between Clara Darcy as Flugelhorn player and National Coal Board worker, Gloria, and Ash Matthews, who narrates the performance as twenty-something Shane Ormonroyd, while acting his part as the character when he was an 8 year old boy.
Not only a superb actor, Darcy is a consumate performer on the Flugelhorn and in indistinguishable from the real members of the Silver Band as they work their way through the William Tell Overture, Danny Boy, Land of Hope and Glory and, the wonderful, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.
Ash Matthews has a great stage presence and, while keeping the piece moving at a good pace with clear and concise narration, he also relishes the moments when he gets to play the young boy, full of curiosity but also a little too worldly wise for his age.
As time goes on, and the events surrounding the closure of the pits and the end of the British mining industry begin to fade, the piece sits firmly in a time and place that has now gone, but in a world of pay caps, increasing inflation, politcal unrest and employment uncertainty it still has relevence that isn’t lost of the very appreciative Eastbourne audience.
**** Four Stars