★★★★

Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Production Run: Wed 23 Aug - Sat 2 Sep 2017

Performance Reviewed: Thur 24 Aug (Press Night)

As an homage to the plighted mining communities of the mid 80s - early 90s, Brassed Off finds itself in prestigious company. Heartily populated with salt-of-the-Earth families fighting to keep their pit open, their homes furnished and their community spirit alive, and all liberally seasoned with healthy lashings of Thatcher-bating, Brassed is a production which throughout offers more than passing glances of, say, Billy Elliot or The Full Monty.

And yet, this is no facsimile or casual retread; rather, the 1996 Pete Postlethwaite & Ewan McGregor Brit Flick which inspired the show predates Elliot and Monty both. 

What Brassed does share with its perhaps slightly more familiar peers, though, is that it is as oh-so-British as a plate of Fish ’n Chips with mushy peas, powerfully evocative of the plight of its subject matter without descending into nauseating politica, and, amidst all of this, surprisingly funny and wholly absorbing.

Set in the fictional town of ‘Grimly’, Brassed follows the story of a group of miners in the early 90s who also form part of the town’s Colliery band. With the impending threat of mine closure looming, so too lies the fate of the band in question, even with cantankerous (see: passionate) but well-meaning band conductor Danny (Hi-De-Hi’s Jeffrey Holland) insisting the show must go on. Meanwhile, talented young Graduate Surveyor Gloria (Clara Darcy) returns home to the town where she grew up, but for what purpose?

Whilst some of the dramas and dilemmas the show pitches for its characters - financial woes and bailiff visits, a divisive debate on whether or not to accept redundancy - are a little rote and familiar, they are nevertheless potent (and in some cases topical) reminders of what such communities were forced to endure, and, courtesy of Paul Allen and Mark Herman’s writing, not to mention the fantastic cast in play here, is all steeped in authenticity.

Given that the original film was perhaps unsurprisingly marketed in the United States as nothing more than a glorified Rom-Com, there is a much more intricate and delicate balance of character, narrative and tone at work here than that would allow credit for. Sure, the blossoming romance between Gloria and young miner/wannabe snooker champ/former bus station fumble Andy (Eddy Massarella) is a central part of the show and lends it plenty of its heart and charm, but there are plenty of other equally effective irons in the fire, too.

Fiery, wilful Rita (Donna Heaslip) religiously mans the picket lines protesting the potential closure of the mine, even long after husband Harry (Tim Jones) has gone home, Danny’s son Phil (Christopher Connel) finds himself torn between an unhappy wife (Miriam Grace Edwards) and the expectations and wants of his father, and, in a beautifully observed sequence, we see how even the most ardent of mine advocates find themselves tempted to settle for redundancy, all laced with very empathetic and human reasons for potentially doing so.

In many ways, then, Brassed Off is a decidedly more nuanced and resonant piece than Elliot or Monty. It’s decidedly less fantastical, for starters - stripping and ballet replaced with the Earthy, stirring warmth and resonance of a full brass band. And whilst the colliery band may be the show’s McGuffin of sorts, they are used sparingly, making their rousing, stirring performances all the more effective when they do appear. Contrary to expectation, and as wonderful as the brass band are (with the local City of Wolverhampton Brass Band doing a rousing job throughout), this is a show about the people, the characters, a message that comes full circle by the show’s finale.

And it’s all carried by a fantastic cast consisting of both industry veterans and local talent. Jeffrey Holland puts in a moving and frequently funny turn as Danny, whilst Christopher Connel handles both the light and dark of Phil’s journey with faultless conviction. Ash Matthews completely disappears into the role of 8 (and a half) year-old Shane, bursting with boyish vim and childhood naivety, whilst Clara Darcy and Eddy Massarella do fantastic work in keeping their characters likeable and engaging, their history believable, and their romantic subplot one to genuinely root for. 

Frequently threatening to steal the show, though, are Greg Yates and Tim Jones as mining buddies Jim and Harry, respectively. With Yates and Jones having performed together and known one another off-stage for years, the chemistry and rapport between the duo is palpable from the off, and their comic timing and command of character perfectly pitched and frequently hilarious. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Miriam Grace Edwards, who inherits the somewhat cookie cutter role of suffering wife Sandra, but rather cuts a blisteringly authentic and completely relatable figure, offering up some of the show’s more powerful dramatic moments.

Brassed Off is an absorbing, funny, moving reminder of a time when the socio-political climate of the Country once again seemed to swing against the proletariat. There’s a reason it is a period of British history that has found itself so ripe for adaptation to stage and film; the struggles were real, the stakes were high and the community spirit so frequently put to the test is sadly rarer to find nowadays.

And yet, ending on the note of community is particularly telling here, for Brassed Off represents a local achievement all of its own; the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre’s first in-house production in over 4 decades. It’s a fantastic start for what promises to be a string of new productions from the theatre (an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is already lined up for next April), but the reason for not discussing that and other associated trivia (keep an eye out for a cameo from the Grand’s CEO Adrian Jackson) earlier in this review is simple:

Brassed Off proves itself a brilliant argument for supporting local theatre and celebrating this new run of in-house productions for the Grand, but that is not in any way a disclaimer of expectation; for here is a superbly acted, frequently funny and deeply resonant treat of a show by any standard, local or otherwise, and one that sets the bar very high for what the exciting new production wing of the Grand will offer up next.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 01902 429 212​​  / Official Website: click

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