REVIEW: BRASS (Hackney Empire) ★★★★


Sixty years ago my parents used to reminisce nostalgically about the demise of the Hackney Empire music hall and so entering that big, lovely, traditional theatre was exiting for me.

I was not disappointed. It is lovely, ornate and has been beautifully restored. The ‘acney ’empire, to quote my parents, is now a long way away from acts like the comedy dancers Wilson, Kepple and Betty or the diminutive comedian Arthur Askey. Now Chamber orchestras, choirs , Shakespeare and other highbrow entertainment are more favoured. Rightly so.

Anyway, tonight we had a high power musical show called Brass, performed by the excellent National Youth Music Theatre. This production is shown as a commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the slaughter on the River Somme early in the First World War. The Battle of the Somme was a battle fought between the armies of the British and the French against the German invading army. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916, on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. More than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was well worth remembering and learning from.

This play concentrates on a group of lads from Leeds who are members of a brass band, who decided in 1916 that it would be patriotic and brave for all of them to volunteer to fight in the British Army and so joined the Leeds Pals Battalion. Subsequently they all go to war in the Battle of the Somme.

Meanwhile at home in Leeds, sisters, wives and girlfriends are left at home and are convinced that what their loved ones were doing was the right thing. In order to feel closer to the menfolk they decide that they will start a women’s brass band with which they can serenade the homecoming of their heroes.
The women all worked in the notorious Barnbow armaments factory where, on fifth December 1926, at 10:27 pm, a violent explosion occurred killing 35 women workers outright, and maiming and injuring many more. This tragic, secret and sad incident was not referred to in Brass.

The entire group of soldiers, of the Leeds Pals Battalion were wiped out in the battle on the first day of the major offensive, along with fifteen officers and two hundred and thirty three other ranks.The deaths of the soldiers are played out in slow motion to great effect.

The entire cast are highly proficient dancers and excellent singers. Some of the army dance moves however, drift from aggressive macho to almost effeminate, which is a little disconcerting. The stage is cleverly differentiated between the battle front and the Barnbow factory by use of lighting. It is cleverly done such that anyone entering or leaving the stage or just hanging about are not distracting.

At a little over three hours the show does feel a little long. The cast received an enormous and enthusiastic standing ovation at the end but I found that the occasionally effete dancing and the length of the show were a little off putting.

Reviewed by Graham Archer