REVIEW: Trench Brothers at Brighton Dome

A scene from Trench Brothers
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Trench Brothers
(Brighton Dome, 17 October 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

As we near the centenary of Armistice Day, arts education organisation HMDT Music’s affecting music theatre work Trench Brothers raises awareness of the contribution that members of the Indian army and British West Indian Regiment (BWIR) made during the First World War. Since 2014 the touring project has involved 50 schools, 3,000 children and 20 composers. Children learn about the real life stories of Khudadad Khan, the first Muslim awarded the Victoria cross, Flight Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik, the first Sikh fighter pilot to join the Royal Flying Corps, and the sad story of Herbert Morris, a young Jamaican with the BWIR who suffered from shell shock and was shot for desertion.

The story of Trench Brothers centres on the friendship between two ethnic minority soldiers. Operatic voice Damian Thantrey plays the fictionalised figure of Daulat Khan, serving with the 69th Scinde Rigles, and experimental jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss MBE plays Norman Manley, a black British soldier serving with the Royal Artillery. Promoted to Sergeant (non-Commissioned Officer), Manley met with such racism that he asked to give up his stripes and change regiment. Watkiss has played this part 45 times on tour. Using theatre, puppetry, songs, with 250 school children from local primary schools, this concluding concert expanded the piece from 30 to 75 minutes, taking place in the Brighton Dome, which was chosen because it had served as an Indian Military Hospital during the war, making the concert a homecoming of sorts.

The bulk of the music is credited to jazz-classical stalwart Julian Joseph and stage composer Richard Taylor, with other pieces by Michael Betteridge, Matthew King, James Redwood, Jenny Gould and Omar Shahryar. In Julian Joseph’s jazzy ballad Duet Of Norman And Edna, a letter exchange is arranged as a beautiful tender classic-sounding jazz ballad. Beginning “Dearest Norman, I miss you so much…” it tugs at the heartstrings. A substantial part of the evening are these "letter songs" adapted by librettist and HMDT Creative Director Tertia Sefton-Green from students’ “letters home” written in workshops. At the 1700-seater Brighton Dome, the kids were grouped in the choir seats behind the stairs and on the gallery seats on either side of the stage, with different groupings singing the letters. These have all the poignancy, humour, sadness, bitterness and gritty historical detail that you would expect, from the blackly humorous “I’m afraid of getting nits so I keep my turban on!” to the heartbreakingly bald statement “I don’t want to be here any more.”

The visual image of the two ‘Trench Brothers’ sticks in the mind. Their song Trench Brothers, with its pastiche of the cloyingly chirpy period style, shares a unifying interracial message: “Trench Brothers together/one weapon, one gun.” It works well with the two men, and especially well with all the kids when it’s reprised at the end with all its eminently singable gusto. The children’s singing is irresistibly cute throughout, in spite of the grim subject matter. The injunction in one of the letters to “Be a child while you still can” takes on a breath-shortening urgency and irony sung by 250 children in a world that seems at times only to be getting irredeemably darker.

Arts education organisation HMDT Music have form for taking on projects with big themes – their previous project dealt with the children of the holocaust – but what can we take away the war to end wars that merely became a First World War of two, and of how many more? It’s hard to find much to inspire hope. In a silent phase, in front of a banner of poppies, the children stack their hand-puppets – their bodies – on the stage. At first the moment seems like an awkward longeur, but as the silence lengthens it grows profound. Following a bleak offstage reprise of It’s A Long Way To Rawalpindi, the scene fades to black.

It’s an affecting moment. A century on, historical amnesia seems to have set in among our rulers, again. It's good that our children are learning about war – the brighter moments as well as the darker – and that they are making the kinds of connections that Trench Brothers draws attention to.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

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