Reviews: Brass, present and future

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Brassed Off

Sheffield Crucible Theatre

It seemed like the old days of community theatre at the Sheffield Crucible last night with a packed, enthusiastic audience rapt by a local subject. Apparently, is set to break the theatre's box-office record, and, in a development that neatly parallels its plot, in June the company will take the show to the National.

It is hard to suppress regret that this comes on the back of a successful movie rather than from within the theatre itself, but set in its regional centre this is still a celebratory occasion, a moral triumph over the wreckage of industry and community endured by the South Yorkshire coalfield embodied above all in the live presence of the `Grimley Colliery Band'.

This presence - on the first night it was the Grimethorpe Colliery Band with three others to follow in subsequent performances - is the principal added value of the stage version. The early scene where the band is joined by Gloria, the stranger in a smart suit who turns out to be not only an exile from the village, but granddaughter of one of its legendary bandsmen, has the house shimmering with anticipation as the players assemble, shifting chairs and trying a few notes. Their playing is the art of machinery, precise to the last `thou', impassively dignified, yet wondrously emotive. The history of this music-making has so much to do with dignity: the bands cleared a space which said to others, but perhaps most to themselves, `look, we are not grimy slaves but a people of lightness, art and self- organisation. Despite the contemporary individualisation of work and the sameness of global culture, it still says this, and the film's success suggests that it provides a focus for a vague sense that something is being lost even for audiences who have never been closer to a brass band than Radio 2.

While cinematic formula requires Mark Herman's script to romanticise and sentimentalise, it does touch upon major issues, among then the roles of men and women and the tension between community and individual aspiration.

One of the wives, Rita (Rita May), expresses these contradictions most clearly in that she is at once the strongest remaining voice of traditional solidarity and yet satirical about the men who can `never do owt by their sens'.

Banding is a thing of beauty, but it also a masculine escape which leaves the women to cope with kids and money problems.

I had hoped that in adapting it for the stage, Paul Allen might have been freer to develop scenes to probe these matters more searchingly. This has seemingly not been possible and the result is that the quickly sketched scenes that can be glossed over in cinema are exposed as unsatisfyingly thin in this context. Deborah Paige's production also needs more pace, especially in the transition between scenes.

Nevertheless it is strongly played, and a especial award should go to Freya Copeland as Gloria for daring to play solo in such company.

`' until 4 April; 0114 276 9922

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