Theatre: Mining a vein of dark humour

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IT IS a story full of belly laughs, full of the human spirit, but the National's adaptation of Brassed Off, directed by Deborah Paige, has a dark, forbidding feel to it - which is perfect for the play's grim subject.

The story - brass band saves the soul of a mining town - is well known by now, even for those who missed the film, but for all the knockabout northern humour, it feels as much like tragedy as comedy.

The colliery's fate hangs over proceedings, the towering pithead machinery dominating the stage like an ancient monolith, while the men and their families wait for Grimley's certain demise as a mining community. Phil was jailed for his part in the miner's strike, the bailiffs are coming down the garden path and the best he can hope for is a few gigs as an inept party clown.

His son, Shane, is the narrator and chorus - wise beyond his years, guiding his mum and dad through the miseries of poverty, consoling his mum when things get especially tough. One of the two youngsters who play him, Luke Peace, was comfortable within a role that's crucial to the tone of the play.

Danny, Shane's grandfather and the band leader (the stalwart Peter Armitage) tries hard to keep the band going, all the while dying with lung disease. "Your handkerchief's all black," Shane tells him. So it's not surprising he wants Grimley Colliery Band to survive. "Look at this tie," he says. "1881 it says - more than a hundred years this band had been together. That's seven strikes, three disasters, two world wars and one bloody long depression."

The lads, though, are resigned to closure and the end of the band. There's increased incentive when Gloria comes along - she's management, as it happens, but plays flugelhorn like a goddess - though Freya Copeland's solo during the Concierto De Orange Juice (as Danny calls it) can't be overdubbed, unlike Tara Fitzgerald's in the movie. So when she fluffs a couple of notes suspension of disbelief lapses somewhat, an effect not helped by the occasional impression of the plot flying by like a runaway train.

There are some great lines, though - "We had basses that sounded like a bulk delivery of syrup and figs," Danny tells the band after one inauspicious performance. Local lad Andy is Gloria's lover, a bit slow on the uptake. "It must be for Andy that they read the main points of the news again," one of his mates says. He gets some stick later for sleeping with the enemy - but, as Phil says, "With legs like that wrapped around you, you don't ask for a reference."

There's lots of fun to be had, but it's still a mordant piece, bitter for everything the Tories did. At the end, as Danny accepts the winning trophy at the Albert Hall then hands it back as a protest against the destruction of the mining industry, all of a sudden it was like an agitprop meeting, with Danny making seemingly a genuine speech. "If this lot were whales or bloody seals," he says, gesturing to the band, "you'd be up in arms."

There is no triumphalism at the end - as the band files off the Albert Hall stage and Danny shuffles away, bent over, Shane tells us that he dies - not like the film, with its upbeat ending. But Brassed Off is still a fine play, all the better for its refusal to be merely a good laugh.

In rep at the Olivier until 24 June (0171-928 2252). This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper.