Brassed Off

Mar 16 2023 | By More

★★★★☆   Tragicomic grandeur

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 15 – Sat 18 Mar 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

If we must have music-driven stage adaptations of films, they should be like Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s impressive production of Brassed Off, where the music is integral to a story that actually means something.

Paul Allen’s 1998 stage adaptation sticks closely to writer-director Mark Herman’s screenplay for his acclaimed 1996 film. The story of the proposed closure of the pit that sustains the South Yorkshire mining village of Grimley (based largely on Grimethorpe), a decade after the miners’ strike. The story of the closure is shown largely through the knock-on effects on the colliery’s treasured brass band.

Sam Payne, Carol Bryce, Ray Pattie, James Sutherland and Jessica Howie in Brassed Off. Pic: Graham Bell

The film skilfully navigates its way through a potentially awkward mixture of grit and romance, of politics and broad humour, and the stage version does much the same.

A slight change of focus allows for attention to be directed to some of the female characters, while emphasis is also given to the narrator figure of the (almost) teenaged Shane.

What the stage version loses comparatively in terms of realism, coherence and sense of place, it makes up for in warmth and immediacy. In particular, the presence of a full brass band live on stage adds hugely to the experience, meaning that (for once) there is a pressing reason to put a film on stage.

warmly believable

Some of the cast appear more at home with the accents than others, but there is a creditable attempt to root the production in place and time. There is also a warmly believable ensemble feel created by Jacqueline Wheble’s direction.

Pat Johnson, Torya Winters, Anne McKenzie, Ade Smith, Ray Pattie, Paul Wilson and David Roach in Brassed Off. Pic: Graham Bell.

Wheble makes good use of the acting area, utilising the whole auditorium as well as the minimal but highly functional set. The band, meanwhile, under musical director Paul McElvie OBE, are integrated into the action throughout, which also gives the impression of a real and functioning community.

The story of course has considerable local resonance, as the brass band tradition is particularly strong in the central belt and noticeably underrepresented in theatre – Martin Green’s Lyceum audio drama Keli being a recent exception.

The south of Edinburgh, of course, is ringed with Midlothian mining villages whose stories are similar to that told here. It is not only the proverbially long memories of those communities that makes this tale still so relevant, with its families struggling to survive while the 1% flourish.


Which is not to say that it all works. There are a couple of moments in the film – part-time children’s entertainer Phil’s complete mental collapse, and his father, bandmaster Danny’s impassioned political speech at the close – that are so famous that any attempt to re-create them is bound to suffer in comparison. This is particularly so in a second half whose (necessarily) episodic structure threatens to lose coherence.

David Roach, Ade Smith, Andy Moseley, Paul Wilson and Ray Pattie in Brassed Off. Pic: Graham Bell

Ray Pattie’s Phil is an excellent performance, however, with the conflicting demands of family, community, tradition and self, practically etched on his face.

John Warren’s Danny also displays a winning combination of cussedness, drive and sentimentality. That fusion of darkness and kitsch that Herman’s other films don’t always get right, is well under control here in Allen’s adaptation.

James Sutherland, as Phil’s son Shane, has an appropriate cheekiness that helps to make up a thoroughly convincing family unit, completed by Jessica Howie and Sam Payne as his younger siblings. Carol Bryce’s heartbreaking portrayal of their mother, Sandra, as a woman well beyond the end of her tether, is possibly the best thing in the whole production.

infectious sparkle

There is a danger that the broad-brush characterisations and humour may tip some of the other villagers over into stereotype. However, this is prevented by the absence of any heavy-handedness in the performances of Ade Smith and Paul Wilson (band members Harry and Jim), or from Pat Johnson and Anne Mackenzie (their wives Rita and Vera). All four have an infectious sparkle as well as underlying seriousness, while their relationships seem completely real.

Anne McKenzie, Pat Johnson, Paul Wilson and Ade Smith in Brassed Off. Pic: Graham Bell

There is an equally impressive lightness of touch to the portrayal of the romance between Gloria (Torya Winters), the Grimley native who has returned to perform a feasibility study on the pit, and Jack-the-lad Andy (David Roach). Their relationship is utterly plausible in both its sweetness and its drawbacks.

The publicity for the original film often centred on this relationship as if it was some form of romcom, but the truth is it is a portrait of an entire community – detailing its togetherness, but also the fractures caused when the community itself has been broken by political will dressed up as financial necessity.

This is strongly put over in this production. The use of the music, the acting space, and the whole cast (including the non-speaking roles) gives equal and due weight to the tragedy and the comedy.

Running time: Two hours 20 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 15 – Saturday 18 March 2023
Wed-Fri at 7.30 pm; Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets details. Book here.

EPT website:
Facebook: @EdinburghPeoplesTheatre
Twitter: @EPeoplesTheatre

The Brassed Off brass band with John Warren


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