As we mark #Armistice100 it seems right that Benjamin Till’s award-winning musical, Brass, should return to remind us, as if we need any reminding, of the terrible price paid by communities during World War I.
The multi-talented Till wrote the book, music and lyrics to this tearjerker of a musical after he was asked by The National Youth Music Theatre to produce a piece to mark the centenary of the start of the Great War.
It went on to win Best Musical in the 2014 UK Theatre Awards and it is easy to see why. This timely revival by Sasha Regan at London’s Union Theatre is packed with power and poetry.
It’s a hugely emotional production that brings home the devastation suffered by communities, colleagues, friends and family.
Till based the show on the real people and, in particular, the tragic Leeds Pals, who, against their better judgement, were ordered out of the trenches and into glaring sunlight, at the Somme, carrying a full pack uphill, and told to walk towards enemy gunfire.
“Your generation was born to suffer for the greater good, ” they’d been told. Two thirds of them were wiped out in the first 20 minutes.
Brass isn’t simply the story of a Leeds Brass Band that went to war. It is also about the women they left at home.
The band had been preparing for their annual championships when one of their number announces that he’s signed up.
“There’s a war on. There are men out there in France who need our help,” he tells his amateur musicians.
So they all sign up – even an initially reluctant youngster, Morrie, who, like many teens, lies about his age to enlist.
So while they march off to war, full of camaraderie and Yorkshire bravado, they leave behind sisters, wives and loved ones.
Mobilised by suffragette Eliza, the women go to work in the local munitions factory and plan to surprise their menfolk when they return by taking up their brass instruments and giving them a rousing welcome.
Regan’s production moves from men to women and back again allowing the audience to follow both stories at the same time with the only set a couple of benches and a few boxes that are cleverly utilised by both groups.
There’s nothing new in the tale which hasn’t been told before. Indeed only last week I was at another WWI play about a group of footballers who went off to the Front Line and theirs was a similar story.
Every community in the country will have similar anecdotes but we should never tire of listening to their tales if only to reinforce the tragedy and human suffering caused by conflict.
Brass is made more poignant by being cast with young actors who, in another lifetime, would have been the very age of the men who went to war.
What started out as a bit of an escapade and a thrilling adventure soon turned into unmitigated horror and Till’s musical numbers reflect it.
The opening songs, like Barnbow Lassies and When You’re A Pal, are innocent, upbeat and full of optimism and there are some well choreographed set pieces.
The dialogue is overflowing with swagger and Yorkshire resilience. Jokes are cracked, the usual sentiments expressed (“We’ll be home by Christmas”) and some of the characters begin to emerge.
Emma Harrold’s Eliza is feisty, fearless and independent. But she also dreads that she will be left on the shelf because no-one wants an intelligent woman.
Her brother Alf (Sam Kipling, oozing heroism) is the group’s natural leader while Midlander Wilf (Maison Kelley) offers hope to the spinster by starting a tentative dialogue by letter.
Morrie’s story is at the emotional heart of Brass and it will make you weep. Lawrence Smith does a terrific job with a part that explores the scandal of boy soldiers who fought and died in the trenches.
There isn’t a weak performance from this large ensemble. Everyone gets as much as they can out of their characters with the limited time they have.
Till’s book doesn’t flesh out all of the characters but there is enough here to make an audience invest their interest and walk away with a memorable experience.
An innovatively-staged production although I was left baffled as to why costume designer Penn O’Gara had opted to put the men in World War Two cropped army jackets with not a gas mask or helmet in sight.
Nevertheless, Brass is evocative, compelling and thought-provoking. Take some tissues. Running at The Union Theatre until November 24.
The Union Theatre marks the Armistice Centenary with a compelling & hugely emotional revival of Benjamin Till’s WWI musical, Brass.