Review: Brass the Musical, Union Theatre

Brass the Musical at the Union Theatre is a powerfully moving celebration of sacrifices made, of service offered, of music itself – beautifully done

“Just until our lads come back”

There’s a neat symmetry to the life of Brass the Musical thus far. Originally commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, its professional London premiere now marks the Armistice Centenary. Benjamin Till’s musical, with additional lyrics from Nathan Taylor and Sir Arnold Wesker, thus serves as a powerful tribute to those who served, both at home and on the frontline.

What is particularly gorgeous about Brass is how it is suffused with the joy of music. Its power to bring people together (as in the characterful ‘Forming a Band’), its potential to lift spirits (the marvelous storytelling of ‘Whistle Billy’), its ability to express something deeper beyond just words (the haunting vocalese at the trenches). And as an expression of the musical theatre form, it works beautifully in deepening an already profoundly moving piece of history. 

Based on real stories, the impact of the outbreak of WWI is explored not just by following the members of a Leeds amateur brass band as they sign up just in time for the Battle of the Somme, but by looking at the lives of the women they left behind as they start work in a munitions factory and seek to start their own brass band. Real care is employed to balance these two strands and the result is a poignant take on the devastating effect war has on society.

Over nearly three hours, Till has the room to pack in a huge amount of story and this he does, touching on class divisions and cowardice, underage recruitment and society’s attitudes to infidelity and homosexuality, as well as french horns and trombones. Director Sasha Regan works hard to ensure a real clarity in storytelling and somehow, manages to keep the tone just light and pacey enough that the tears never threaten to fully overwhelm you.

For Brass is a deeply emotional piece. If the sound of muted trumpet from afar doesn’t do it, then the empathetic performances will get you right there. Sam Kipling’s Alf, a born leader, is simply superb as his love for his fellow men both uplifts and burdens him; Matthew Peter-Carter’s upper-class Bickerdyke tries manfully to be one of the lads; and Maison Kelley’s Wilfred also impresses as he talks about the realities of being on the front-line. Emma Harrold’s Eliza and Tamsin Dowsett’s Miss Grimsby also stand out though truth be told, this is a solid ensemble from top to bottom.

Henry Brennan’s musical direction from the piano is an absolute tour-de-force on a technically demanding and pretty much non-stop score, those brass accents all the more powerful for their scarcity. And Toby Burbidge’s relatively simple set really opens out the space of the Union to allow the movement to really make an impact. A striking success. 

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Mark Senior
Brass the Musical is booking at the Union Theatre until 24th November

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