Union Theatre, London
Seen November 7th, 2018
Reviewed by Mark Sykes
2018 marks the Armistice centenary, so it is fitting that the musical Brass is being performed at the Union Theatre in recognition of the commemorations marking the end of World War One.
Originally commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre in 2014 and written by Benjamin Till (with additional lyrics by Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker), it tells the story of an amateur brass band from Leeds who enlist to the Army and go to the front line in France to help their fellow countrymen in battle. But the story that is told is also as much about the women who are left behind, and their worries about loved ones and whether they’ll ever return.
Act one starts as the ‘band of brothers’ demonstrate their adept skills playing their brass instruments and it also sets the scene of their relationships with the ladies working in the local factory, the ‘Barnbow Lassies’. The lads are a cheerful bunch and their decision to enlist, whilst being a worthy one, is perhaps made without fully realising the full consequences of what they are letting themselves in for.
One of their brethren, Morrie (played by Lawrence Smith) is not yet old enough to enlist, but this doesn’t deter him from wanting to join his colleagues in battle. This decision will eventually have a huge impact upon them all, but it is the first loss of one of their own, Harry, that brings into sharp focus for the rest of the band the full horrors of war.
Brass, running at 2 hours 55 minutes (including interval), could easily have been nearly three hours of a desperately dark tone and you couldn’t have argued, given the topic, if that had been the case. But to give Benjamin Till (and his co-creators) credit, he has managed to integrate some good humour and light amongst all the darkness of war. One of my favourite lines of the evening was “Can I share your blanket tonight?”. It was done with deft humour but at the same time, highlighted the limited comforts that the guys had on the battlefield.
Titty’s poems (the wonderful Samantha Richards) was another case of being able to lighten the mood as the ladies dealt with being stuck in a factory and feeling pretty helpless for the lads at war in France, their main contribution being writing letters to those on the front line alongside, of course, creating the munitions for their war heroes. Tamsin Dowsett is one of many highlights within a magnificent ensemble cast and is almost matronly-like in her role of factory manager Miss Grimsby, a character who relishes keeping her ladies in check!
Act two features the ladies deciding to form their own brass band, notwithstanding their lack of playing experience! Again, this is another aspect that brings some comedic balance to the solemn proceedings happening elsewhere.
Morrie being underage eventually has devastating repercussions. His questioning by a commanding officer is one of the highlights of the evening, and Lawrence Smith shows incredible emotions as he struggles to deal with how to handle the situation under much duress.
Two of the prime characters in Brass are Eliza (Emma Harrold) and Wilfred (Maison Kelley), and one of the most heart-warming moments in the show is when they meet for the first time when Wilfred returns home on leave. Harrold is enthralling, she is captivating throughout and her performance of Could Have Been was stirring and heartfelt.
Brass draws to a close when the men begin their assault on the enemy’s front positions, or to put it more accurately they begin their suicide mission. To the echoes of their battle cry, “We do this together”, the results are stark in their brutality. The band of brothers fought as one, and they fell as one.
There are some wonderful songs in Brass, including Keighley, Billy Whistle, the eponymously-titled Brass and Scared, which deals well in capturing issues with love both on the front-line as well as back home in Leeds. The size and scale of the Union Theatre stage can pose some issues with choreography, but Sasha Regan and her team have done a great job here. I also noticed during You’ll Always Have A Friend there was perhaps a doffing of the cap to Bob Fosse’s choreography of Chicago – whether that was the case or not, nice moves!
Brass tells a fascinating story of a bunch of amateurs deciding to become soldiers in an effort to help their country. Overall it strikes a fine balance between the brutality and horror of war, whilst trying to shine a light on the positive traits of those in battle and those left behind in Leeds. It also factors in some of the other issues that prevailed at the time, including homosexuality and societal hierarchies (not that, to some extent, they don’t remain an issue today).
An excellent ensemble cast does a tremendous job of portraying Benjamin Till’s story, with not a weak link amongst them. With expert direction and staging by Sasha Regan, Henry Brennan as Musical Director, and together with the rest of the creatives involved, Brass is a fine and respectful commemoration in this year of the Armistice centenary.
Brass is playing at the Union Theatre until November 24th. Tickets ad more information can be found at http://uniontheatre.biz/brass.html