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Brass by Benjamin Till at the Union Theatre | Review

The Barnbow Lassies - Brass at the Union by Mark Senior
The Barnbow Lassies – Brass at the Union by Mark Senior

There isn’t quite as much enjoyment of brass musical instruments as one might reasonably expect in a show called Brass, but given that the characters’ lives are disrupted, and in many cases ended, by the Great War, that’s probably just as well. Here, even musical director Henry Brennan is suitably attired in period costume. The show very nearly hits the three-hour mark: apparently, one of the reasons why a certain long-running musical was curtailed from just over three hours to just under was so that producers did not have to pay the musicians for an additional hour as per a pay agreement with the Musicians’ Union. (That, and audiences do need to get home at a reasonable time.)

With sixteen characters, it is not always easy to distinguish one from another, though perhaps the personalities of a group of women in the Barnbow munitions factory, near the city of Leeds, shone through stronger than those of their male counterparts out on the battlefield. The ladies they had a foreman (or should that be forewoman?), Grimsby (Tamsin Dowsett), who ruled the place like the hospital matrons of old. Even so, there were still more opportunities to converse in a factory than there were in the trenches.

I had wondered whether a show about the events of the First World War would follow a predictable arc of being full of high hopes and aspirations before gradually becoming increasingly dark and foreboding as the realisation sets in that the war would last a lot longer than originally anticipated, with a far greater cost of lives as well. Brass, I am pleased to report, is nuanced, and while the cold, hard realities of wartime survival come through strongly enough, there was also a sense of people trying to do the best they can. It’s not all doom and gloom, and the camaraderie between people at home as well as abroad was palpable throughout the evening’s proceedings.

In a show like this that portrays real events, there’s almost always something that gets left out. In this instance, while the first day of the Battle of the Somme – 1 July 1916 – was powerfully portrayed, there was a grave omission from the narrative that had otherwise worked hard to put across to the audience the challenges faced by ‘the Barnbow Lasses’. Thirty-five of them were killed in an explosion on 5th December 1916. It seemed to me rather strange to not have that incident even mentioned.

What we do see and hear, however, is well performed. The choreography befits the military movements, while the musical numbers are varied in tone and pace, vibrant and sprightly in places, subtler and reflective in others. A number early in the second half, ‘You’ll Always Have A Friend’, is perhaps the most quintessential showtune in this musical – the song and dance really come into their own. But the acoustics in the venue aren’t ideal, and the rapidity of certain lyrics made them hard to decipher at times.

This is, appropriately for a storyline in which teamwork is paramount, an ensemble piece, and it is difficult to single out any stand-out performances. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to point out any weak links in the cast, most of whom display actor-musicianship quite flawlessly. Caricatured characters are sparing: Peggy (Rosa Lennox) begins by being something of a Bible-basher but well before the end is discovered by Grimsby to have been exchanging correspondence with men other than her own husband, while the Major (Michael Martin) expressly tells his troops he will be overseeing operations from the back of the company – not, to quote an old adage, ‘leading from the front’.

The major events in the story are familiar but the experience of seeing a script and score like this come to life is quite unique. Emotive but thankfully devoid of melodrama, this is a compelling piece of theatre, and a welcome addition to the many war plays and musicals being staged during this centenary year of the end of the Great War.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

To commemorate the Centenary of Armistice Day this November, the Union Theatre is proud to present the professional London première of Benjamin Till’s award-winning musical, BRASS.

Set during the First World War, BRASS tells the story of a group of men from an amateur Leeds-based brass band who enlist to fight as part of the Leeds Pals regiment. They leave behind their wives and sweethearts who are left to pick up the pieces in the munitions factory. The women learn to play the instruments their brave men have left in the hope that one day they can play triumphantly to them on their return from war. Based on true stories, this heartfelt tale set between Leeds and the front line is one of love, survival, loss, music and the futilities of war.

Lucy Aiston; Joe Douglass; Tamsin Dowsett; Hannah Francis-Baker; Adam George-Smith; Emma Harrold; Alistair Hoyle; Maison Kelley; Sam Kipling; Rosa Lennox; Kelsie-Rae Marshall; Michael Martin; Matthew Peter-Carter; Jack Reitman; Samantha Richards; Lawrence Smith.

Director: Sasha Regan; Associate Director: Lee Greenaway; Musical Director: Henry Brennan; Lighting Designer: Matthew Swithinbank; Producer: Union Creatives Ltd; Associate Producer: Luke Byrne; Set Designer: Mc Voy Design.

The Union Theatre, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR
Performances: 31st October to 24th November 2018


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