Brassed Off King’s Theatre

It is the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike of 1984, when after a bitter struggle between the miners, the Coal Board and the political establishment of the day, the mining industry all but disappeared. This play is based on the events of those times and, although it is set in Yorkshire in the fictional town of Grimley, it has resonance also for all of us who grew up in mining communities in Scotland.

Indeed the Grimley Colliery brass band are represented onstage by members of the former Monktonhall Colliery Band, a local pit where the conflict led to rifts in the community which still have not healed to this day. The unity of strength of trade unions and of local communities may have lessened over the years but there are still important messages within this play about love and hope and solidarity and it is a timely revival.

The film version of 1996 starring the late great Pete Postlethwhaite as Danny Ormondroyd, the driving force behind the band, was hugely popular and is still fresh in the memory but John McArdle manages to make the part his own. There is a small but talented cast featuring strong characters such as formidable but good hearted pit wives Vera and Rita (Gilly Tomkins and Helen Kay) and Danny’s son Phil (Andrew Dunn), the downtrodden and despairing father of four driven to desperate measures by his plight. Two of his children are played by the cutest kids you have ever seen on stage, the wee girl especially was wonderful. She didn’t have to say a word but her acting was perfect. All the characters are well played and, amazingly, they also play their own instruments in the band most competently.

The story is set against the backdrop of pit closures in the early 90s. Miners at Grimley Colliery are facing a ballot on whether to accept closure of their pit and a payoff of £20,000 or fight to keep the pit, their jobs and their community alive. The miners are disillusioned and flat broke and the temptation of the money is strong as they see their wives and children suffer. They had fought hard in the 1984 strike but had failed and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had achieved their goal of breaking the unions and ending reliance on “King” coal.

One of the few remaining pleasures remaining to them is their colliery brass band and there is an opportunity for them to win a prestigious national competition. Enter Gloria (Clara Darcy), a local lass who left Grimley some years before but has returned to work as a surveyor, reviewing the viability of the pit. She rekindles her romance with childhood sweetheart, miner Andy (James Robinson) and takes her place in the band. The unfolding tensions of the impending ballot play out and everything starts to crumble around them – Danny’s collapse, the breakup of Phil’s family and Clara’s rejection by her fellow band members when they discover she is one of the dreaded management, the dissolution of the band. It is powerful, moving stuff and seems to be moving to a bleak and hopeless conclusion. However the power of the music and of the human spirit prevails and in a wonderful finale, the band gets back together again and wins the competition.

The music is brilliant, hats off to the Dalkeith and Monktonhall Colliery Band who are performing in the show for no fee (donations only). They are helping to keep the brass band tradition and the memory of our mining heritage alive.

Irene Brownlee