With the 100th anniversary of the Armistice approaching, a number of London theatres have programmed commemorative works in recognition of the men and women who served their country during World War I. Benjamin Till’s Brass at the Union Theatre, is one such production and was originally commissioned by The National Youth Music Theatre back in 2014 to commemorate the beginning of the Great War.
The musical follows two distinct storylines; the members of a brass band who are sent to the front line forming a Pals battalion, a group of men who had enlisted together in local recruitment drives on the promise that they would serve alongside each other. The second focusses on the women who are left behind, taking the place of men in the factories, and who decide to keep the brass band going while the men are away.
It’s a touching and often charming tale, Benjamin Till has clearly researched the background in great depth, which can be seen in both the realistic dialogue and heartfelt musical numbers. At just under three hours, cut down from the original staging at Hackney Empire, it does begin to feel overly long, yet despite the running time we are still left feeling a little short changed, because while the men’s story reaches a very definite conclusion, the women’s story is rather left hanging.
With a cast of sixteen, Brass is very much about the collective experience of both the men and the women. For the men it’s the excitement, followed by harsh reality, of going to war, while for the women it’s the sense of duty and frustration which comes through strongest. But there are also some well-defined characters lurking among the ensemble; Alf (Sam Kipling) and Wilfred (Maison Kelley) in particular demonstrate a deeper connection to their surroundings while Matthew Peter-Carter’s portrayal of Bickerdyke makes this one of the more intriguing characters.
While the female characters are somewhat pigeonholed, the performances here are the strongest. Emma Harrold as Eliza and Kellie-Rae Marshall as Emmie both stand out from the crowd, while Rosa Lennox gives a stunning vocal performance as Peggy. The music is provided beautifully by musical director Henry Brennan on the piano, and the cast also play the brass instruments (and very well too). The small space and relatively few band members, means that the brass scenes don’t have quite the oomph they were intended to have, but they still give the score the hauntingly meaningful sound it was written with.
Director, Sasha Regan has created an incredibly atmospheric production which perfectly captures those dark days, and Matthew Swithenbank’s lighting design further enhances the overall look and feel.
Brass is certainly a fitting tribute to the brave souls who lived and died through World War I, “remember my face, so I can visit you in your dreams” sing the men in one of the particularly poignant numbers, and it would be hard not to be touched by such a sentiment. This emotive and heart-rending musical has been written, and performed, with compassion and a real sense that it will be one of the few productions running this Armistice Day that truly gives the audience a glimpse into history.