Brass, Benjamin Till’s winner of the ‘Best Musical’ in the 2014 UK Theatre Awards, fills the stage at the Union Theatre, Southwark, in its professional London première. Commemorating this month’s Centenary of Armistice Day and based on wartime stories, it was commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre for performance in 2014 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
A combination of humour, sensitivity and energy.
In an effort to boost recruitment to the army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson had the idea of persuading groups of men, rather than individuals, to join up. His initial success with London stockbrokers was sustained by workers in Liverpool, where Lord Derby announced, "This should be a battalion of pals, a battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain…”. The message spread across the Pennines to a local brass band near Leeds who signed up to what by then had become known as a Pals battalion. However, after massive losses at the Somme, and with the introduction of conscription, the scheme was abandoned. It had a major flaw. When casualties came all the men from a workplace, community or even a brass band could be completely wiped out.
As our musical men head off to what they believe will be an amazing adventure lasting only a few months, the women are left behind. Their lives were to change drastically, as they became employees in the rapidly constructed local munitions factory. The idea that women could work in such a manner was to transform society forever, especially as it gave a major boost to the cause of the Suffragettes, an issue not overlooked in the factory floor conversations. They even came to believe that they could form a brass band that would provide a rousing welcome home for husbands, brothers and neighbours.
The show was purposely devised as an ensemble piece of roughly evenly distributed parts that would show off the talents of the students. As a work of that type it remains highly successful, providing multiple couplings of characters with their own stories woven into a grander picture of the tragedies of war and personal sacrifice. It’s also a weakness, inasmuch that it’s diffuse nature leaves it deprived of traditional leads and a focussed central storyline. It seems the running time of just under three hours with an interval is also a result of giving every actor an opportunity to excel in solos, chorus work and choreographed routines. The Union Theatre is also about one-tenth the size of Leeds City Varieties Music Hall where is was originally staged and so doesn’t give it the space for the big songs and dances.
These factors make the achievement of director Sasha Reagan and her associate Lee Greenaway all the more remarkable. Musical director Henry Brennan keeps the pace moving and lighting designer Matthew Swithinbank beautifully sets the mood for the large number of scene. That there is just too much of everything is down to the writing not the production. The cast is uniformly strong, able to move from gung-ho chorus numbers to duets and solos, tell engaging personal stories and establish clear relationships.
Brass is a demanding evening all round, but a fitting tribute to those who sacrificed so much and whose story it preserves. It’s a rare and timely opportunity to see a difficult subject presented with a combination of humour, sensitivity and energy.