Turning a much-loved film into a piece of theatre is always a risk. For every Lion King and Sister Act there’s a Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man. So, how would Brassed Off fare as a stage show?
Pretty darn good, as it turns out. A co-production between York Theatre Royal, Bolton Octagon and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company, this version of the 1996 film, faithfully adapted by Paul Allen from Mark Herman‘s original screenplay, hits all the right notes, right down to a perfect recreation of the songs which litter the movie through to the gamut of emotions running through a colliery town facing devastation.
Brassed Off is essentially about politics – both on a national and a personal level. It’s about relationships with people, political parties and music, and the search on all fronts for a happy resolution. The story of the film is well-known: a pit brass band with ambitions of making it to the national championships struggles on while the livelihoods of its members crumble, all under the auspices of a passionate conductor who thinks music means more than the people around him.
The late Pete Postlethwaite made the lead role of Danny his own so John McArdle, an established stage and TV actor, must have found it daunting to take on. As he told Northern Soul earlier this week, the former Brookside actor knew he had to put his own interpretation on the part. And he does just that. From his depiction of a man propelled to lead his band to the Royal Albert Hall to his epiphany when he realises the value of those around him, McArdle never breaks his stride – and his Yorkshire accent is flawless.
There’s a clutch of good performances from among the ensemble cast (in particular Andrew Dunn as Danny’s son, Phil) although I wondered about the need for the character of Shane, effectively the play’s narrator. I’ve never enjoyed watching an adult actor play a young boy and this was no exception. At times sounding as if he was on helium, Luke Adamson looked like he’d wandered into the wrong play – he would have been much more at home in the cast of Oliver!
Despite a strong script and solid performances, the real stars of the show were the set and the tunes. Designer Dawn Allsopp has pulled an absolute blinder with her incorporation of the pit itself into the action, not least as an integral part of the scene changes. Using the mining shaft lift and its heavy metal door, complete with a member of the crew garbed in miners’s gear, she pulled off the impossible task of making set changes part of the narrative – the clatter of the elevator door sounding its own mournful melody throughout.
Brassed Off has been on tour since February and, at each venue, local brass band have performed on rotation. Last night was the turn of Westhoughton-based Wingates, one of the oldest and most successful brass bands in the country. Formed in 1873 by the men of the Bible class at Wingates Independent Methodist Chapel, only three brass bands in the world have a longer recording pedigree. Judging by their outstanding skills last night, a purchase of a CD might be in order. From Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (Orange Juice to the rest of us) to the William Tell Overture, it was spine-tingling stuff.
I don’t mind admitting that I shed a few tears at the end – tears for a lost industry and abandoned generations, tears for a lost way of life and, in the narrative of the play, tears for a man who, at the very end, discovers the real meaning of love.
The entire run of Brassed Off at the Octagon is sold out (there’s even a waiting list), testament to the enduring appeal of the film and, I imagine, the love for brass band music in the North of England. If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, then count your lucky stars. And, oh, if you’re planning on going on a hot summer’s day, dress appropriately. The auditorium was like a sauna last night, leaving me and another lass in the toilets crying “sweaty tears” after the curtain came down.
Where: Bolton Octagon
When: until June 14, 2014
More info: www.octagonbolton.co.uk/145/Brassed-Off/525
For the low-down on the Octagon’s 2014-15 season, click here: www.octagonbolton.co.uk/season-ticket-shows