Trench Brothers

Trench Brothers opens with a lone Indian Army First World War soldier walking slowly in spotlight through the audience. Above the stage sit over 100 primary school children, flanked on both sides by other primary school children. Two other Indian Army soldiers sit on the bare stage with traditional Indian instruments: Tabla drums and Sitar; below them is a full orchestra.

MOBO nominated Cleveland Watkiss has a deliciously rich blues voice which contrasts Damian Thantrey’s clear and beautiful opera voice extraordinarily well.

This is a music concert: the culmination of four years of a First World War Centenary project commemorating the contributions of ethnic minority soldiers. It has gathered a huge amount of information on the soldiers predominantly from India and the West Indies. The programme that accompanies the production makes fascinating reading, and the summary at the end of the concert regarding the men we had seen pictures of through the production was very moving. The MOBO nominated Cleveland Watkiss has a deliciously rich blues voice which contrasts Damian Thantrey’s clear and beautiful opera voice extraordinarily well. Both men have solos and duets, but were a little underused. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of time that the words being sung by the choirs could not be understood, and as they sang the majority of the songs, this really impacted on the experience.

The central theme was imagined letters sent to loved ones describing the soldiers’ experiences, brought together from memoirs of survivors. However, letters home at the time were mainly about reassurance to their loved ones, with the fear very much between the lines. There is a big difference between letters at that time and of subsequently looking back and reflecting. The overt lyrics about fear and blood and death however truthful, is truth in hindsight, and does much to discredit the efforts of soldiers to reassure their loved ones back home. Lyrically, there were aspects of this that were just too much, and musically, with the exception of Trench Brothers, the melodies were not always interesting. There was also a puppet pigeon, used to imply letters carried which is factually inaccurate as pigeons only carried coded messages. As this piece was about honouring the memories of real people to have such a blatant inaccuracy was jarring.

The accompanying simple choreography, adults and young people playing certain roles in fully authentic costumes and the constant use of puppets was at times very effective, but overall it gives the whole piece an overly sentimental feel.

There are some exceptionally good things about this but also some that were not. Audience members were overheard while leaving talking about the two men with the Indian instruments and noted that they were hardly used and just sat there; which is true. Only two songs used the Indian instruments. As this was a music production honouring ethnic minority soldiers, it has to be wondered as to why there was not more ethnic minority infused music from India, and from the West Indies?

This is a laudable and worthy project and subject, and the production was slick, yet promised more than it delivered.

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The Blurb

A new music theatre work commemorating the contributions of ethnic minority soldiers during the First World War through music, theatre and puppetry, bringing to life their hopes and fears, their longing for home, their camaraderie, courage and valour.

Directed by Clare Whistler and Freya Wynn-Jones to Neil Irish’s designs, it features over 250 children from local primary schools in Brighton, Newhaven, Lewes and Seaford alongside acclaimed jazz vocalist of the year and MOBO nominated Cleveland Watkiss and ‘superb’ (The Times) opera singer Damian Thantrey.

Renowned jazz composer Julian Joseph and award-winning composer Richard Taylor are joined by composers Michael Betteridge, Jenny Gould, Matthew King, James Redwood and Omar Shahryar in a unique collaboration drawing together work developed with schools across London, Lancashire and the South East since 2014.

This powerful centenary event is made all the more poignant by its location in Brighton Dome, which served as an Indian Military Hospital during the war.

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