Review: First Night: Belly laughs fail to hide the tragedy: Brassed Off: National Theatre

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

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

The pit's fate hangs over proceedings, the towering pithead machinery dominating the stage like an ancient monolith. Phil was jailed for his part in a 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 - and wise beyond his years. Danny, Shane's grandfather and the band leader, tries hard to keep the men together. "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 the pit closing and the band going. Gloria comes along - she's management, but plays flugelhorn like a goddess - though a solo cannot be overdubbed, so when she fluffs a couple of notes disbelief is not quite suspended.

Still, there are some great lines - "We had basses that sounded like a bulk delivery of syrup and figs," Danny tells the band after one inauspicious performance.

There is lots of fun to be had, but it is still a mordant piece of work, still bitter for everything the Tories did. At the end, as the dying Danny accepts the winning trophy then hands it back as a protest against the destruction of the mining industry, all of a sudden it was like an agit prop meeting. "If this lot were whales or bloody seals," Danny says, gesturing to the band, "you'd be up in arms."

There is no triumphalism for the audience to take home with them - as Danny, dying of lung disease, shuffles off the stage, Shane tells us that he dies. But Brassed Off is still a fine piece of work, all the better for its refusal to be merely a good laugh.

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