Brassed Off – Church Hill Theatre

Written by Paul Allen

Directed by Jacqueline Wheble

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A choice between eating and heating. Fishing for coins down the sofa to pay the gas and the constant threat of unemployment and rising costs. Sounds all too familiar. Paul Allen’s 1998 stage adaptation of Mark Herman’s screenplay for the 1996 film Brassed Off manages one of the rare events in which the transition of medium doesn’t alter much, the stage version delicately balancing the concoction of everyday struggles, political jabs, and humour with a ripple of determination and romance as clearly as the film. 

Following a community of miners living in the shadow of a proposed pit closure which sustains the area’s families, businesses, and sense of purpose, Brassed Off tells the story of the people of Grimley, not solely through experience and drama but through the additional impact on the colliery’s brass band. The heart-wrenching parallel between the current state of things, where the 1% thrives on the miserable heap of the rest and Brassed Off’s original setting feels all too painful to pay much attention to.

What the Edinburgh People’s Theatre manages is quite remarkable, conjuring a mellifluous extraction of sound throughout the production, sourcing the importance of the band and its role within the community. A fit and glorious sense of purpose, under the magnificent musical direction of Paul McElvie OBE. And though shifting between the forefront and backdrop of performance, the band themselves are incorporated into the narrative, often treading the aisles of the theatre outside the range of the stage.

It’s most welcome from director Jacqueline Wheble, whose tremendously effective use of the entire space extends beyond the stage. It’s not the first time this has been utilised by those performing in the Churchill space, but it is without question one of the more effective demonstrations of canny structure. Mandy Black and Robert Fuller’s minimalist, even silhouetted set design offers an additional flavour of weight to the central belt, not that one needed the reminder with the broad accents on display – some more comfortable than others, but all giving it a fair whack. There’s a bustle to the production, a healthy one of the community as performers dip on and off the stage through various means, maintaining an impression of momentum, of constant movement and work from all – even the more sedate and background ensemble roles.

There is no central focal point of character, but rather a communal interlacing of stories. The closest Brassed Off comes to a protagonist lay with Ray Pattie’s Phil or John Warren’s band leader Danny. Pattie carries a touching performance, which rises to s feverish anxiety of supporting the demands of family, tradition, community and expectations. It’s a weight which gradually builds, Pattie ensuring that the audience grasps the severity of the situation. It leads to the film, and Paul Allen’s most difficult moment – where’s Phil’s part-time career as an entertainer, and a clown, pushes him towards exhaustion. It’s a strikingly morose and brutally accurate moment, one the production manages to pull off, though the weaker sense of flow in the second act leads to its build-up and fall-out being less consistent in pacing. 

Behind every good, or trying their best, man is a legion of women who spend their days praying for their safe return. There’s an undeniable glint of glee and enjoyment emanating from Anne Mackenzie or Pat Johnson’s Rita, particularly as they revel in torturing their husbands Harry and Jim, or give over to the few enjoyable moments they can savour. It’s a nice balance to the gut-wrenching sorrow in Carol Bryce’s portrayal of Sandra, Phil’s wife pushed far beyond the final straw. It’s painful to watch in its authenticity, harrowing in accuracy.

Torya Winters possesses a commanding fire, enjoying tossing back the grenades lobbed at her by the more broadly humorous roles from Paul Wilson and Ade Smith’s Jim and Harry. Winters, along with bouncing rapscallion James Sutherland’s Shane, and David Roach’s laddish snooker playing Andy convey the hope for new generations, and yes – even amidst the gloom, there is some. But it’s their relatability and infusion of energy and life to their connection that transcends Gloria and Andy away from the glitz of cheap romance, and to a more genuine charm and feasibility – it isn’t perfect, and it isn’t meant to be, it’s simply human.

There’s tremendous comprehension from Edinburgh People’s Theatre to the weight of the subject matter and reverence of performance and music. The integrity of the band, thanks to a significant contribution from the Edinburgh University Brass Band, captures the essence of Allen’s emphasis on naturally bringing the score to the show. But it is the direction and cast, summed wonderfully by Warren’s powerful closing performance, which depicts Brassed Off’s genuinely exquisite appreciation and cries to recognise the value of people, of community and one another. It’s something only a beloved grassroots production company could understand with eighty years of practice, and eighty years of cherishing members.

Something Quite Remarkable

Brassed Off runs at The Church Hill Theatre until March 18th. Tuesday – Friday at 19.30pm. Saturday at 14.30pm

Running Time – Two hours and twenty minutes including interval. Suitable for ages 12+

Tickets begin from £12.00, £10.00 concessions are available, and tickets may be obtained here

Photo Credit – Graham Bell


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