The Coal is dead – Long live The CoalPosted: November 2, 2016
Brassed Off, the stage play
“The Coal is dead – Long live the Coal”
Script by Paul Allen – based on the movie screenplay by Mark Herman
Maggie Thatcher had one thing right in 1980 – coal is dead. When coal is burned the planet is heating up threateningly to an uncertain degree. But what she had in mind as an alternative was oil – a different fossil fuel. She was willing to destroy an industry with a history of strong union worker representation in favour of an energy source with an aggressive colonial history in the Middle East and other places; it was not about finding sustainable energy alternatives.
Brassed Off is a story of one coal mining town at that time, ‘Grimly’, in Yorkshire, England: coal country. This town, like many coal towns, has a brass band. Apparently 19th century industrialization combined with improvements in the design and production of brass instruments served to move collieries to sponsor brass bands as a community activity. ‘Grimly’ is based on actual mining town ‘Grimethorpe’ whose band was, and still is, perennially a contender for the British national championship brass band.
The Tory government intends to shut down the Grimly mine, even though it is profitable, and is going through the motions of a decision making process when they have already made up their collective mind. Locals differ on whether the government process is real or a PR exercise. An attractive young woman, Gloria, returns to Grimly with a tertiary qualification and a job with the mining company to evaluate the viability of the mine. (And she brings her flugelhorn, too, being the granddaughter of a famous local miner and bandsman.) Many locals are struggling financially and may be tempted by the company’s redundancy offer despite their desire to support the union in their traditional work community (“The workers / United / Will never be defeated”).
The Grimly band is a good one. The director, Danny, is determined to carry them through the regional contest to the London national championships, but the pressures of the mine closure are taking their toll. My favourite case is the one of the director’s son, Phil. With a wife and four kids they are struggling to make it on a miner’s wage. But Phil blows the family money and the repo men come to take away the telly, the tape player, the cabinet, and the kitchen table. And even the baby carriage. But Phil hasn’t blown it on booze, drugs, or sex; he’s blown it on a better trombone to use at the Brass Band Championships. His wife Sandra feels no choice but to take the kids and move in with her mother. Then Danny has a pulmonary attack and is in hospital. Then Phil tries to hang himself (after poetically describing how God ran out of hearts and brains to go with all the bodies available, so created the Tory party without).
While many band members have recommended dis-band-ing if the mine closes, and the miner vote does decide to take the money, Danny’s and Phil’s troubles bring the band together to do their best at the contest. They win the regional. They win the national.
Being a band show, the script calls for brass band music to be played. The Wellington production had a six piece brass band playing live back stage. Other productions no doubt have had larger bands, but there is barely room for six at the Gryphon Theatre. To have a live band lends more presence to the story on stage. I loved it and the audience was very appreciative.
The band highlight is the scene where the band collects outside Danny’s hospital room to play the nostalgic “Danny Boy”, or “Irish Tune from County Derry”. The music director had made a fine attempt to adapt Percy Grainger’s classic dense harmonies, portraying a rich mix of emotions, to the five brass at his disposal. Throughout the show the band played sections of Floral Dance, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (“Orange Juice”), March of the Cobblers, Colonel Bogey, William Tell Overture, and Land of Hope and Glory, and maybe others.
Danny is unable to conduct the band at the national contest, but the band having won the championship, he comes centre stage to give his speech – not an acceptance speech, but a refusal speech, having been moved to realize that the music in not the most important, but rather the solidarity of the people. He passionately rails at the Tory government’s destruction of communities and people’s lives, even bursting out at those who protest about whales but not about people and communities. (Of course, the band accepts the trophy after all.)
The final spoken lines of the play are curious, here in 2016 twenty years after the original movie production and 30 years after the Thatcher years. Danny wants the band to play ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ but a band member reminds him it is the anthem of the Tory Party. Danny replies “we’ll have to reclaim it for ourselves”. That is a Brexit line well ahead of its time.
Analysis after shows by Repertory Theatre production at Gryphon Theatre, Wellington, October, 2016 (19-29). Apologies for no review of individual performances production.