Theatre reviews: Brassed Off, Translations and Afterplay

John McArdle as Danny in Brassed Off. Picture: Nobby Clark
John McArdle as Danny in Brassed Off. Picture: Nobby Clark
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Brassed Off, York Theatre Royal ****

Is there a more Yorkshire theatre show?

Brassed Off, the Mark Herman movie, took the name of our county and the brave men who worked in the mines, around the world. Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor and Pete Postlethwaite brought to life the story of the indomitable spirit born deep underground in the ‘Grimley’ Colliery, before Yorkshire writer Paul Allen adapted the movie for the stage. Allen’s script is a model of ruthless efficiency, both a strength and a weakness.

While admiring the efficiency of the storytelling, it’s easy to wonder what has happened to the heart of the piece. The build towards the brass-music soundtracked denouement is inexorable and obvious and the various set pieces along with way feel on occasion like a by-numbers piece of storytelling.

What gives this production its heart is a set of wonderful performances.

It starts with Luke Adamson. who arrives on stage playing both an older version of Shane and his younger self, the son of a miner who sees all around him and understands more than his parents realise. Andrew Dunn is Phil, the role taken in the film by Stephen Tompkinson, a miner who survived 1984, but did so with a broken spirit. His father Danny, in a performance that is all sadness below the surface by John McArdle, refuses to bow his knees to the management and insists that whatever happens to the pit, the band must play on.

While the script might lack a bit of heart, yours will swell at the story regardless.

• To March 1. Bradford Alhambra, March 11-15. Sheffield Lyceum, May 7-10.

Afterplay, Crucible Studio, Sheffield ****

What Daniel Evans is doing with his writer’s season in his three Sheffield theatres is providing something of a masterclass for audiences.

He did it with David Hare, he did it with Michael Frayn and now he’s doing it with Ireland’s greatest living playwright Brian Friel.

In Friel’s Afterplay, the writer takes two of Chekhov’s characters, Uncle Vanya’s Sonya and Andrey, brother to the Three Sisters.

We meet them two decades after Chekhov has done with them in a cafe in Moscow. It helps a little if you know the story of Sonya, played by Niamh Cusack and of Andrey, here Sean Gallagher, but the acting makes it unnecessary.

If the season is a masterclass in the writer, here is a masterclass in performing. Cusack shows us oceans of pain in her past beneath the waves of suppressed emotion while Gallagher’s desperation is equalled by a vulnerability that is aching.

It is a beautifully performed piece about two people with sadness in their lives, sitting and sharing their sad stories – and finding moments that remind them both of their shared humanity.

An exceptional start to the season.

• To March 1.

Translations, Sheffield Crucible, *****

Towards the end of this brilliant play, the second presented by Sheffield in its Brian Friel season, there are moments where the enormous depth of the story you have been watching is suddenly revealed.

When those moments occur, it almost takes your breath away to realise that here is a play sharing small slivers of humanity while revealing universal truths of great magnitude.

Occasionally coming off like a lighter version of the story told by Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain, Friel fools his audience into thinking they are watching a light comedy. He wrong-foots us with the use of a neat trick. While the characters are speaking to each other in a native Irish tongue, the brilliant Friel gifts his audience the theatrical equivalent of Douglas Adams’ Babelfish, so we can all understand what is being said.

When English speakers arrive, there is much misunderstanding between the characters, while the omnipotent audience get to follow everything. Comic moments are accentuated by the device, but consider this ‘just’ a comic piece and you are seriously mistaken.

In a village in Donegal, life continues. People fall in love, have dreams, make plans. The British arrive to ‘civilise’ the people and Anglicise the names of their towns. Friel reveals the arrogance of the invaders with the intricate skill of a surgeon with a knife.

When the British army, in the shape of Captain Lancey, arrives to give the local ‘savages’ a lesson in British imperialism, the arrogance is skewered by our knowledge that this bunch of savages were moments earlier studying ancient Greek and Latin texts.

James Grieve’s production creates tableaux of great power with a piece of work that is stunning to watch with a cast that absolutely nails the depths of this brutal and brilliant script.

• To March 8.