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BWW Review: BRASS, Union Theatre

BWW Review: BRASS, Union Theatre

BWW Review: BRASS, Union TheatreEn route to Ypres, one passes military cemeteries, white stones punctuating the grey vista of the flat, muddy lands of Picardy and Flanders. Even the smallest of those gated burial grounds is affecting, but that feeling is amplified beyond comprehension on arrival in the Belgian town, in contemplation of the Menin Gate, names etched into the white marble in lists that keep coming.

In such circumstances, it's hard to connect each name, each stone to the man who once bore it. The initial pang of seeing ages like 18, 19, 20 and thinking of oneself in such reckless, carefree years, giving way to the inevitable searches for one's own surname or a counting of Smiths or Patels (plenty of both). If each new generation is to learn the lessons of the Great War and do honour to those who fell, those men need to live again, to be given back their hopes and fears, to be found not in cold stone, but in warm families.

Benjamin Till's Brass, commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre in 2014, does that - the men are boys again, the women girls. "It could have been me" is a powerful tool in shrinking a century of time to the distance of a few rows of seats and, if the musical has some flaws, they're forgiven for that primary objective's complete achievement.

Much of Till's book follows familiar lines for anyone with even a little knowledge of the trenches. There's the lads signing up for Pals regiments and marching off with the whiff of adventure in the air, side-by-side with your mates. There's the shell-shock as the world's first industrial war's mincing machine cranks into action; there's the closeness of living in a trench, with its lice and rats for company; and there's the longing for home.

What is different about this show is a much greater focus on the girls back in Blighty, many of whom are teenagers as innocent and lively as the sweethearts and husbands they waved off. The munitions factory workers detect the whiff of women's suffrage in the air, lose husbands and gain lovers, growing up quickly because they must - they too spring to life as people like you and me.

If the northern accents wobble a little and the splendid idea of basing the plot around a brass band wrenched from Leeds and dropped on to the banks of the Somme while the women at home maintain their spirits by forming their own parping combo, is a little underused, the ensemble piece gives plenty of opportunity for some very talented singers to shine. And, casting directors please note, all these young musician-actors can play and can sing - not always the case, even in London.

Standouts include Emma Harrold, whose Eliza finds the man for her through letters sent back from the trenches, and Sam Kipling, whose leadership of the band carries over to leadership in the field, no matter the cold hierarchy of the donkeys in charge.

The music is provided primarily by Henry Brennan bashing away at a single piano, an arrangement that suits this intimate space perfectly and if the score is never less than pleasant, it lacks a showstopper (the big ballads that might have been 11 o'clock numbers curiously packed into the middle of a long show). Tremendous work too from Penn O'Gara, whose costumes are just so, and director, Sasha Regan, who never loses sight of the need to entertain as well as to educate.

If one can discern the narrative arc early on and if one can tick off the predictable "types" allocated amongst the lads and lasses, well that may be an inevitable consequence of the piece's genesis as a didactic work. But the show engages us fully and sends us out into the night with the admonition "Lest We Forget" honoured sensitively and thoroughly.

So, when a lone trumpeter sounded The Last Post late in the show, I swiftly removed my hat and was halfway to standing up. I suspect I was not alone.

Brass continues at the Union Theatre until 24 November.


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From This Author Gary Naylor