Reviewed – 6th November 2018
“this moving piece about love and solidarity, humanises history and brings the forgotten to the foreground”
As Remembrance Sunday is coming up this weekend, with particular poignancy, as it will mark a hundred years since the armistice, Brass seems the most appropriate piece of theatre to watch this week in the capital. Originally commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre in 2014, Benjamin Till’s World War One musical now makes its professional premiere at the Union Theatre. Dramatising real life stories and people from the time, this moving piece about love and solidarity, humanises history and brings the forgotten to the foreground.
The war has been raging on France’s frontlines for a year. Alf, conductor of one of Leeds amateur brass bands, has decided it’s time for him to enlist. With not much encouragement, the rest of the band also agree to sign up, no man wanting to be left behind. After some very basic training, they are packed off across the English Channel, with spirits high, ready to fight the Krauts and become heroes. It doesn’t take long before the true horrors of war reveal themselves. The cheery days in the band seeming like a distant memory.
Back on home soil, the wives, girlfriends, and sisters of the men are left in Leeds to pick up the pieces, everyday, fearful of receiving the dreaded telegram reporting their loved one’s death. But these women aren’t sitting in wait; they bravely do their bit for the war effort, working at the Barnbow munitions factory. Through the correspondence sent between the men and women, the audience are transported back and forth between home and the ravaged front, proving the power of words in sharing love, encouragement, and reassurance.
The most refreshing part of this production is having a story that evenly tells of both men and women’s trials and tribulations during The Great War. As incomprehensibly horrific as being in the trenches must have been, seeing your friends killed right before your eyes, it is just as hard-hitting hearing about those treacherous times through the female perspective. With sensitive sophistication, Brass is a multi-faceted exploration of the devastation war brings to every member of the family.
Benjamin Till’s music ranges from haunting lamentations to raucous morale-boosting ditties, which help to bring light and shade into the show. Most songs are rather unmemorable, yet still excel at moving the story onward, offering the emotional clout needed. The power of the cast’s voices is exemplary, creating gorgeous harmonies that can be spine tingling. With just the Musical Director, Henry Brennan, on the piano, this basic set up gives space for the singing to take centre stage.
Highly moving and heartfelt, Brass compels you to reflect, and make sure that the lives lost to the war are not forgotten.
Reviewed by Phoebe Cole
Photography by Mark Senior
Union Theatre until 24th November
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Around the World in Eighty Days
Reviewed – 10th August 2018
“The cast appear to be constantly fighting to maintain the dynamics against an unchanging, and quite dire, backdrop of what sounds like a cheap Casio keyboard”
Jules Verne’s classic nineteenth century novel, “Around The World In Eighty Days”, despite containing over a hundred characters, crossing eight countries using six trains, five boats and an elephant has inspired many stage adaptations over the years; undaunted, in the spirit of its main character, Phileas Fogg, by the challenges. The latest is Phil Willmott’s musical running at the Union Theatre. Although Willmott has been closely associated with the venue of late, especially with his ‘Essential Classics’ series earlier this year, this production is staged independently of him.
As with all well-worn stories, we all know the ending and so the onus is on the maxim that the journey is more fun than the destination; and it is clear from this punchy production that the cast are taking this to heart and patently enjoying themselves as they follow Fogg’s race against time to circumnavigate the world. There is a warm energy between Sam Peggs’ adventuring Fogg and Connor Hughes’ Passepartout as man and servant. Peggs neatly conveys the self-important imperialism of his character, dismissing other people, and other cultures, as mere dressing for his heroism. What he lacks, though, is the sense of satire inherent in Verne’s writing.
But we are not here for social commentary. This is billed as a fun filled musical comedy and, for the most part, the company and audience embrace this. There’s a star turn from Ceris Hine who adopts multiple roles with easy versatility; from a jaded, Scottish-born Moulin Rouge chanteuse to the upper-class wide-eyed Miss Fotherington. While in between practically stealing the show with her hilariously understated, blink-and-you-miss-it, portrayal of the birds and the wind that steer Fogg’s hot air balloon across the continent.
The music is full of crowd pleasers, particularly the anthemic overture which shows off the strong ensemble singing and sets the spirit of optimism that pervades the show. It is a shame, though, that the sound mix often makes it difficult to appreciate the music. The backing is frequently lost. While this is understandable within a score that swings from rousing choruses to intimate ballads, what is unforgivable is the musical arrangement. The cast appear to be constantly fighting to maintain the dynamics against an unchanging, and quite dire, backdrop of what sounds like a cheap Casio keyboard. I don’t know how this lack of respect, for Willmott’s songs and Annemarie Lewis Thomas’ score, wasn’t addressed during rehearsals.
That aside, Brendan Matthew’s direction keeps the energy throughout and the strong cast maintain the stamina and vitality to navigate the numerous and sometimes fantastically fast costume changes. There is enough magic and inventiveness to keep us going and, despite the various hurdles, we are ultimately glad we stayed the journey.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Around the World in Eighty Days
Union Theatre until 1st September
Previously reviewed at this venue