Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 8 June, 1998

Before The Full Monty the Whisky Galore or Passport To Pimlico of the '90s Mark Herman's film Brassed Off covered (almost exactly) the same South Yorkshire territory, but without forcing the realities of economic catastrophe to play a muted second trumpet to a clutch of amusingly cheeky characters, as a mining community is forced to accept the closure of its pit whilst the colliery brass band simultaneously promises to attain national success. Deborah Paige's production of Paul Allen's theatrical adaptation, which broke box-office records at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre in March, now arrives on the large, unhelpful Olivier stage.

For the most part, Allen focuses Herman's polemic even more sharply. Even if this production were to boast the film's cast of Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite rather than Adrian Bower, Freya Copeland and the particularly fine Peter Armitage in the respective central roles, they would not dominate the action. Here, one literally never loses sight of the vast, looming dominance of the pit. Just as Roger Glossop's pithead towers over all events, so those goings-on be they the repossession of a family's last kitchen chair, the band conductor (Armitage) succumbing to pneumoconiosis, or the old story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl when he finds she works for "management" merely display facets of the all-pervading crisis of closure.

Aveley and Newham Band and Redbridge Brass alternate the roles of the band itself, their versions of the likes of the Helston Floral Dance and the William Tell Overture for the most part nicely undercut by the script. Allen introduces a gratuitous and cloying device in having the story recounted by a nine-year-old boy, but this is scant sugar amid the otherwise concentrated anger. The film's finest comic moments are retained, although they likewise serve only to throw the serious business into relief.

I dearly wish I had seen this play in Sheffield. Removed from its immediate geographical context, it feels no less authentic, but that authenticity resonates much less richly with an audience of bloody Southerners. At times it almost felt like a theatre-in-education piece on the grim depredations practised for political reasons upon innumerable mining communities; such a feeling of detachment, almost of historicality, is shameful, and its cause lies with us rather than the play. It is not that Brassed Off should connect more deeply with us, but rather we with it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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