Brass was performed by the National Youth Music Theatre at the Hackney Empire on 27 and 28 August 2016
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
‘Pals battalions’ were First World War military units formed from local recruitment offices that promised to keep friends, families and neighbours together in a battalion, rather than assign them arbitrarily. The heartbreaking story of one such group – the Leeds Pals, and the young brass band members who joined up together – forms the basis for Benjamin Till’s epic drama Brass. A recent commission from the National Youth Music Theatre to mark the centenary of the Great War, Brass receives its London premiere at the Hackney Empire and proves to be one of the theatrical highlights of the year.
It’s such a pity that this outstanding production lasts a mere three performances. The amount of time and effort invested in this show is clear to see, rivalling – and indeed surpassing – much of the West End’s established shows and, for me, standing head and shoulders above all of the WWI centenary productions I’ve seen in recent years.
The show centres on the voluntary recruitment to Kitchener’s Army of a young group of real-life Leeds brass banders conducted by Alf (the outstanding 20-year-old Ben Mabberley). Led by one determined suffragette (the equally good Laura Barnard, also 20), the wives and sweethearts left behind to staff up the Barnbow munitions factory rally to reform the band, vowing to welcome home their triumphant heroes on their return… a return that, of course, never happens.
The show’s lead creative, Benjamin Till, is responsible for the holy trinity of book, lyrics and music, and his writing is monumental – an audacious combination of Oh, What a Lovely War! and Les Misérables. Every song hits the mark and is perfectly placed, the ebb and flow of the numbers ensuring a rollercoaster of a ride. From the triumphant and celebratory to the heart-wrenching and devastating, each number is absolutely compelling, and Till deserves to be seated at musical theatre’s top table for his efforts.
Just as Titanic blew me away with Maury Yeston’s masterful ability to deal with pathos and melodrama, so too does Brass handle this most unfathomable of topics with grace, wit and style. It’s a fairly cliched plotline, yet it never devolves to bathos, thanks to Till’s mastery of the material. It does go on at great length – it’s bordering on too long and could do with a trim – but these stories beg to be told and they’re utterly captivating. The music, played from the pit by a largely brass ensemble of 18 young musicians, has that delicious warmth that you get from a brass band, interspersed with rasping blasts and lively wa-wa-ing. Be sure to stay for the exit music!
It’s the performances that matter in the NYMT, though, and – wow – every single contribution is superb. Mabberley and Barnard excel as the principal characters (Mabberley’s ‘Brass’ is sensational), but they’re surrounded by talent, all 14 of whom I wish I could name. But fear not, I’m sure you’ll be seeing them all soon on a stage near you. Given the short amount of time these students have to spend preparing the show, their performances are nothing short of phenomenal, so credit to director Hannah Chissick, MD Alex Aitken and choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane for helping these kids achieve such wonderful results. Of course, what gives the performances an added poignancy is the fact these youngsters are around the same age as many of the soldiers killed at the Somme.
Brass is a truly epic musical event – I can’t think of a better British score from recent years – and it has just added itself to my list of top five shows of 2016. This 40th anniversary season for NYMT is an encouraging sign that the West End and beyond will not be short of talent in the coming years.