Sunday, 23 March 2014

Brassed Off

Brassed Off
Darlington Civic Theatre
30 years have passed since the dark days of the miners' strikes back in 1984. Divisive times, indeed; miners, families and whole communities were placed under incredible pressure. The government's 'dash for gas' - a preemptive measure in anticipation of their next round of coldly calculated action - meant they were to squander 200 years worth of gas reserves in a mere 30.

In terms of the theatre, it's hard to imagine how such a grim situation could lead to anything other than a very bitter play. Yet Brassed Off has an undisguised sweet and uplifting side, despite pulling no punches whatsoever.

The story distills the overall troubles of the miners into the singular tale of Grimley Colliery, which acts as a microcosm for the whole 'Coal Not Dole' era. As their lives descend into uncertainty and desperation, the villagers take pride in the one thing they know can still hold onto - the village brass band. Their flagging enthusiasm is lifted when Gloria - formerly a resident of Grimley before 'making something of her life' - returns and provides the missing musical link for the band, offering a catalyst for success. Yet Gloria has a secret, which threatens to split the community even further...

The sweet side of the play is derived through the art of character comedy. When a band member is happy to (secretly!) blow his savings on a new trombone while the bailiffs are removing his furniture, the humour has to be handled very carefully indeed. Brassed Off hits the comedy bullseye repeatedly. Anti-government quips brought spontaneous applause from the sizeable audience on a couple of occasions. People of the North East never forget.

I was intrigued to see how the play would handle the obvious problem; how to enable the cast to replicate an entire brass band? Simple! Bring in one of the authentic local bands, in this case the Durham Miners' Association Brass Band.

Brassed Off is entertainment with a serious message, capable of provoking laughs and deeper thoughts in equal measure. Ultimately, the characters in play have to decide on what really matters in life and in some cases that requires a big shift in their thinking.

It is not for the sensitive, featuring, as it does, robust industrial language and adult themes such as a terminal illness, an attempted suicide (shockingly portrayed) and a brief glimpse of nudity.

The Touring Consortium Theatre Company will be back later in the year with a highly anticipated version of Regeneration, a timely adaptation of Pat Barker's famous trilogy on the Great War.

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