Brassed Off

Blowing their own trumpets
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The Independent Culture

It was a great idea to move Mark Herman's screenplay Brassed Off, adapted for the stage by Paul Allen, from a South Yorkshire setting to Tonfardre Colliery in the Rhondda valley. Near the end of the play, the roll-call of ghost towns and villages, where 53 collieries once thrived in an area no more than 16 miles across, couldn't fail to stir strong emotions.

It was a great idea to move Mark Herman's screenplay Brassed Off, adapted for the stage by Paul Allen, from a South Yorkshire setting to Tonfardre Colliery in the Rhondda valley. Near the end of the play, the roll-call of ghost towns and villages, where 53 collieries once thrived in an area no more than 16 miles across, couldn't fail to stir strong emotions.

After touring in Clwyd Theatre's mobile auditorium, featuring local bands as an integral part of the action, Terry Hands's unsubtle production has reached the company's Mold base. When I attended, it was the turn of Northop Silver Band to step into the starring role taken in the film by the Grimley Colliery Band. But instead of the sentimental English tunes blown on celluloid, the location was established with Welsh favourites, from "Men of Harlech" to "Cwm Rhondda" and, finally, "Land of my Fathers". By this point, the capacity audience was thoroughly roused and on its feet, singing passionately.

Neither Allen nor Hands seems quite sure if Brassed Off is a play with music or a concert with dialogue. Musicians emerge from the pit to play centre-stage, and their weighty role upsets the balance of the narrative. The action feels flimsy and fragmentary, as we flit - as if in a soap opera - between the manly sparring of the hard-hatted, orange-overalled miners, the spirited solidarity of their feisty women, and the saccharine love affair between the management surveyor, Gloria, and the old flame of her schooldays.

Set in front of a giant pit-wheel, which turns into a flashing Ferris wheel to symbolise the band's musical success in London, the small cast works terribly hard. Big issues and personal domestic crises jostle for priority but, in the end, none of them makes quite a big enough impression. Two strident women do not make a picket line, and - even with the addition of a few capering children - they are even less convincing as a cheering fan club. Scenes such as drunken high jinks, or the sub- Billy Elliot dancing of the precocious Scott (Ciaran Joyce) during one number, are embarrassing.

There's something decidedly off-putting about a cast list that simply names R1, R2, R3 and R4 as the characters played by four actors. The publicity surrounding Ed Thomas's new play, Stone City Blue, is more promising, however: "Winter in a city. Berlin, Paris, Cardiff, Antwerp... a stranger, a poet, a drunk, a whore."

With a peeling wall - two tables project out of it at different levels - as a backdrop, and a boarded-up door, a suitcase, table and chairs, and a bottle of wine, the set gives little away. The four actors begin their cross-dialogue, establishing an identity, the precise nature of which remains vague. Two women and two men - "four 'me's make an us," they banter - seem to crystallise into one character called Ray. Perhaps light is beginning to dawn: R for Ray? But "where real Ray is, only real Ray knows". And if, as the dialogue suggests, "crazy" Ray is confused as to his identity, then so is the audience.

The play, underpinned by an evocative, jazz-inflected score composed by John Hardy, follows an apparently intricate pattern. Its structure is dependent on earlier mottoes and themes, reworked and developed as in a musical movement. All credit to the four actors who, under the writer's own obscurely motivated direction, play this game of attempted self-revelation with commitment and energy. But it is a pretentious piece, devoid of dramatic action and reliant on shouted four-letter words.

'Brassed Off' runs at the Clwyd Theatre, Mold (0845 330 3565) until 13 November; 'Stone City Blue' runs at the Clwyd Theatre, Mold until 6 November, then tours to Newport and Cardiff

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