Association of Community Theatre
Show Reviews September 2017
by Paul Allen
Another year gone: it doesn’t seem like twelve months since I was eulogising about “The Railway Children”, yet when one looks back one realises just how busy the amateur theatre season is, and long may it remain so. Another ambitious production for your company to get its teeth into with, more fond remember memories for future times when someone starts a conversation with “D’you remember when we did……?
This play is based on the 1996 film by Mark Herman about a colliery brass band and real events in the West Yorkshire village of Grimethope following on from the 1984 miners’ strike. In the play, the miners who stood firm throughout the strike, now face a renewed redundancy ballot that threatens both their livelihoods and a century of brass-band tradition with extinction. It was a time when successive Conservative governments “ripped out the hearts of communities in the North of England and in Wales and then came back for their souls”. A report in the early 1990’s classed Grimethorpe as the most deprived village in the country so the colliery brass band’s triumph in the national championships within a week of the pit closing, was of the “ stuff that dreams are made on “as well as being actually true.
This is the story you had chosen to tell us, with all its stirring emotional music, its earthy humour, its rugged language, and its heart-wrenching drama. Your set was an all purpose one, as usual cleverly designed, masterfully constructed and realistically presented and used. Pit exterior was suggested CS occupied by a magnificent mine shaft and wheel, with attendant steps, hand rails and walkways. This superb suggestion of the colliery with its changing area, front door and built - in entrances and exits, was positioned between Buckley Street and Coalpit Lane, both of which showed houses and their entrances, belonging to cast characters. Off stage L was the living room of Phil and Sandra, and their young family, and off stage R was the Coal Board office, containing desk, chair and phone, where Gloria worked. Some of the lighting effects with vivid red or coloured skies backing, silhouetted mine shafts and buildings, positively defied description, and graphically enhanced, illustrated and emphasized the potency of the story being told. Well done!
There was another multiple cast member without whom this story could not have been adequately told – the famous Mossley Brass Band. Their superb playing and expert artistry reached deeply into the audience emotions, underlined the hardship of the story, were an inspiration for the cast and also a source of joy and fulfilment for everyone. Whether sitting in position where orchestras traditionally sit; playing from the rear of the hall; marching through the audience at the Saddleworth Show; becoming increasingly inebriated whilst pretending to be the bands from Delph, Diggle and Dobcross or weaving magic with “The Floral Dance”, “Danny Boy”, “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez” (a quite unforgettable experience), they combined with everyone else involved in any way, to make the evening both memorable and a life-long memory for all who shared in it.
Billy Pretsell and Lee Brennan, the directors and their assistant Olivia Hollingsworth, do not try to let the story down gently or include sentimentality, as their cast act out the real hardship felt in this real life experience. We see physical violence between workmates; desperate shortage of money leading to attempted suicide, yet legendary miners’ humour is still ever present despite the bleak times. The fabled solidarity between miners and their wives is told with honesty, despite it being stretched to breaking point over the cost of band subscriptions and the price of new instruments, as bailiffs come to claim everything else. It is a production of so many different strands which make up what is known as real life and Billy, Lee and Olivia are to be congratulated for welding together the vagaries of life with real people trying to do their best for family, friend, honour, tradition, represented by actors, using their various collective and individual talents to do justice to and honour at, the way of life in a moment of history. Hearts and souls were on view to-night on your stage and invisible, but nevertheless there, throughout your theatre.
Andrew Fidler played Danny, the band master, with the massive heart who is becoming increasingly ill, collapsing and being taken to hospital. His presence is ever present throughout all the band’s activities and his impassioned refusal to accept the trophy – the national championship- triumphant despite fiendish adversity – was a moving piece of theatre.
John Meachen played his son, Phil – who played the trombone in the pit band. His performance tugged at our very heartstrings as the pressures and failures of this dreadful time wore away at him. He showed vividly his disintegrating home life through lack of money, ending with his wife Sandra leaving him and taking the children. His attempt to hang himself from the pit shaft was a moment of pure drama and his speech justifying it was believably delivered. He had reached the end and the children’s entertainers costume he was wearing seemed to emphasize the hopelessness, as did the new trombone he carried when visiting Danny, his father, in hospital.
Tracy Rontree was Phil’s wife, Sandra and she showed, with desperate clarity, the hopelessness she was finally brought to; how her efforts to look after her family and keep it together were doomed from the start and how one feels when the bailiffs arrive. Ben Hadfield played their son Shane and literally lit up the stage with his presence – full of youth, energy and enthusiasm. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy conducting the band – shades of his grandfather – and so did we.
Jon Grebbin as Jim, Mike Sammon as Harry, and Elaine Thomson as Rita and Ros Hendren as Vera, their wives, gave such power, experience and joyous humour to their characters that the story positively fizzed smoothly along on their considerable talents and experience, adding strength whenever involved, whether drunk or sober; ungovernably angry or responsibly discussing issues; having fun or visibly moved – theirs was the backbone of the story. I believe Jon also played in the band on occasions as did Jo Farrow – a true marriage of acting and music – how exciting for your company to be able to marry the arts in such a way.
Jo Farrow played Gloria who auditioned successfully to play in the band and we watched the growing affair with Andy, played by Gavin Stamper, develop with growing excitement and anticipation. Like much in real life, things do not always run smoothly and the fact that Gloria worked for the Coal Board, presented problems for Andy and the Band members, thankfully successfully reconciled after the Band’s victory. Jo’s actual playing of Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez” was one of the evening’s highlights. The lovely melody and the quality of and the feeling behind the playing was simply unforgettable.
Kevin Morris, Lewis Kilgour, Maisie Knott, Daisy, Holly and Rowan Dewsnap, and Millie Wright added their talents to the production, proving yet again that there are no small parts in theatre. Well done to everyone involved in any way at all in this memorable evening. Congratulations, Billy, Lee and Olivia.
Happy play-making. Thank you for your welcome and hospitality.