Jennifer Christie reviews Brass by Benjamin Till now playing at the Union Theatre in London.
6 November 2018
Brass, with book, music and lyrics by Benjamin Till, was commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre in 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. It is fitting that this production at the Union Theatre is timed to coincide with the Armistice Centenary.
The story runs chiefly along with oft repeated tales: The lad who joins up with his mates lying about his age to be accepted into the army to fight. He was only 15. The women left behind to do “men’s work” who keep the country running and change the role of women in society forever. The insanely horrific conditions in the trenches that held death and despair but also forged bonds between comrades in the mud. And the unfathomable strategic decisions that had a company of friends walk over ‘the top’ to a barrage of gunfire that wiped out a generation of young men.
So why say this all again? Remember my face…as the lyrics go. The stories bear telling over and over again and there are fresh aspects here amidst the familiar. Like the love story between two of the soldiers that flares up in a time when prison was the payment due made for such affairs.
However the raison d’etre for this version of the story is the powerful and beautiful music that threads throughout as a conduit for truth and depth of emotions. Till has written a score that pulses with musicality and shines from the opening bravura phrases. What is most interesting in the music is the layers of intricacy added by harmony. The superb voices of the cast stand alone in heart-rending ballads and soar to a collective height in the company song. And then there’s the classical piano ‘sturm and drang’ of the battle scenes that are simply wonderful.
The piano is played magnificently throughout by the musical director Henry Brennan. It’s no surprise to hear that Brennan trained in classical piano before succumbing to a love of musical theatre. Brennan has also prepared the musical numbers well with the cast.
Sasha Regan has directed and staged a performance of a very skilled cast with a fine eye for detail and timing. Regan is supported by a strong creative team. The set from Toby Burbidge is crafted using timber and includes boxes and tables that move to define spaces and transform the scene from the canteen of the munitions factory into the war zone.
However it’s the lighting design of Matthew Swithinbank that brings the set to it’s fullest life. The battle scenes are a master of light and movement creating chilling shadows. The most poignant of scenes are sympathetically lit adding depth to the moments.
Bringing the musical to life off the page is a highly skilled cast of sixteen players. There are the men of the Barnbow Brass Band who become the soldiers of the Leeds Pals and two officers, Bickerdyke and the Major. Then there are the women of Barnbow. Together they make an outstanding ensemble whilst apart they hold their individual characters and give authentic credence to the story.
Of the men, the biggest solo moment belongs to Sam Kipling in the role of band leader Alfie. Not only is his singing strong and rich, his character is nuanced, especially in his solo number in the beginning of the second act. Playing his sister Eliza is the dynamic Emma Harold whose singing is equally as fine.
Brother and sister have a lovely quartet including their respective love interests Wilfred (Maison Kelly) and Tom (Adam George Smith). Either of these scenes would have stood alone, but played in partnership with each other raises them both to a higher plane.
Having such a wealth of worthy material makes for a long show and though it would be difficult to decide which of the moments should be cut, the overall show would benefit from pruning even just a couple of the numbers. This is the only drawback of what is a balanced, emotional and entertaining work with some of the best music I’ve heard in musical theatre.
Until 24 November