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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Till’

This WWI set musical was commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre and when I saw the London premiere of their production just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/brass-nymt-at-hackney-empire) it had a cast twice the size, an 18-piece band doing what a solo pianist does here, in a theatre with a capacity twenty times the Union Theatre. Despite that, this very timely professional premiere packs as much, if not more, of an emotional punch.

It moves between Leeds and the Somme as a brass band enlist together and their loved ones at home manufacture the munitions they need. At the front we glimpse the horrors and hopelessness as one dies, an underage recruit is executed for desertion, two men supress their desire for one another and the troops are sent to their death on ‘the big push’ by officers knowing full well what their fate was likely to be. Back home, the girls health deteriorates as their bosses expose them to risk in the munitions factory, and they form their own brass band as a tribute to their men. Relationships are lived through letters.

Benjamin Till’s excellent score is quintessentially British, with folk and choral influences, very melodic. Sasha Regan’s staging has great pace and energy, handling moving moments sensitively, not least the chilling ending to the first half, though I did think some of the soldier’s choreography was a touch quirky. A couple of large tables help to created the trenches and the factory in a simple and uncluttered set. The talented young cast serve the play well; I particularly liked Sam Kipling and Emma Harrold as brother and sister Alf and Eliza, and Samantha Richards feisty Titty, whose brother Morrie is beautifully played by Lawrence Smith, a fine trumpeter too. Henry Brennan does a terrific job playing the whole score on piano.

A lovely, heartfelt musical that again proves British musical theatre is alive and thriving, and a fitting tribute during the centenary of the events and times it represents.

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For the second time this month NYMT’s bold ambition and pool of extraordinary young talent produces something very special. This time it’s a new musical (though previously staged in Leeds in 2014) on a huge scale in a vast theatre with a cast of 33, 18 musicians and goodness knows how many behind the scenes – and it’s another timely First World War setting.

Members of a Leeds brass band sign up and soon find themselves in the trenches. Their womenfolk, now working in a munitions factory, decide to use their musical instruments and form a band to keep the tradition going, and to play for them on their return. The show moves between the munitions factory and the battlefield, exploring a lot of themes. There’s the underage recruit who the officers turn a blind eye to, until he appears to desert. An expectant dad becomes one of the first casualties. The band leader persuades his sister to write to a Brummie soldier with no letters from friends or family, which leads to much more. The munitions factory jeopardises the health of the girls, the ‘canaries’ as they were named, after the yellowing of their skin by the munitions. The class divide is evident both at home and in France. Two soldiers walk on eggshells around their attraction for one another. Above all, the callousness of privileged officers sending ordinary men to their inevitable death chills you.

Benjamin Till’s score is superb, full of moving solos and rousing choruses, very much in the style of Howard Goodall, but with more focus in solo numbers. They take a risk ending the first half with a tragedy and at just over three hours it’s a touch long, but it’s an impressive piece of work which deserves a much longer life (just three performances in London) and future productions. Director Hannah Chissick marshals her large cast well, usually keeping everyone on stage as the locations change, rather than wasting time moving people on and off. There’s excellent choreography and movement from Sam Spencer Lane and the musical standards under MD Alex Aitkin are outstanding. I was in awe of the amount of talent on stage and in the pit, many of whom we’ll no doubt be seeing again on professional stages.

A towering achievement.

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