With its triple focus on a coal mining community in crisis, Britain’s lost industrial landscapes and rich seams of working class culture imbedded in pithead villages, at one level Paul Allen’s stage adaption of Mark Herman’s 1996 screenplay, Brassed Off, invites comparison with Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters and Billy Eliot. But the fictional story of Grimley Colliery Brass Band members fighting for survival above ground after the devastating 1980s strikes and the closure of their local pit in the 1990s is what gives this play a human face, while the on-stage presence of a brass band offers more than just a stirring live soundtrack but brings actors and audience together in solidarity.
Kevin Shaw’s production, his third go at the play at the Coliseum since 2005, draws on the musical excellence of four award-winning bands from the Oldham area during the run. It’s these pitch-perfect interludes that really hook you in, while the dramatic orchestration of close-knit families forced to choose between picket lines, redundancy pay-offs and an entire way of life going down the pan clearly needs fine-tuning.
The staging, dominated by an image of a pit-head winding wheel, suffers from pacing issues, and although the cast create some nicely defined characters – Ged McKenna as Danny, the music-obsessed bandmaster, and Paul Barnhill as the son struggling to maintain his family in a world turned upside-down – when the band finally strikes up a spine-tingling Danny Boy, Danny’s claim that “people will remember the music long after the pit has gone” could equally apply to this production.