cast glory

Blaze of Glory

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


From the people who brought you Rhondda Rips it Up! as a Hollywood publicist might have it, comes another tale steeped in the soul of Wales, and not just Wales but the Valleys and the communities created and ultimately devestated by coal.

While Rhondda was about the real life Newport suffragette Lady Rhondda, Blaze of Glory is fictional, even if based on real characters, yet it could be a story from any of a dozen mining communities scattered around South Wales, and not just South Wales.

Welsh miners had their male voice choirs, giving unity and pride to the close community of pit towns, choirs such as Pendyrus Male Voice Choir in the Rhondda Valley, formed by out of work miners a century ago next year.

But miners were a universal band of brothers, working in a world where disaster was a constant companion. Across the border in the north of England instead of choirs, the fierce pride and loyal community was invested in brass with the likes of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Grimethorpe was the inspiration for the film Brassed Off, about miners clinging to the comfort of their band as they battled pit closure and Blaze of Glory has echoes of that. We are in the 1950s and the mine is due for closure and the choir . . . it hasn’t sung a note since 1953. That was the year of the accident when 20 men died, many of them members of miner and choirmaster Dafydd Pugh’s choir, his men on his shift and he, despite no blame attached, still carries the dead weight of responsibility.

He refuses to restart the choir until Nerys Price comes in, and Dafydd is not going to refuse her – you suspect love is in the air in what could be seen as a little nod to Dylan Thomas and Under Milkwood and the lovelorn Myfanwy Pricel

pugh and price

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Dafydd and Rebecca Evans as Nerys. Pictures: Kirsten McTernan

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is a splendid Dafydd, avuncular and commanding respect from his disparate band of miners while Rebecca Evans’ Nerys is a delight, it would take a man with a heart of . . . well coal, I suppose, to deny her.

Then we have the miners, the choir, there is Emlyn, the choir’s star tenor, beautifully sung by Adam Gilbert. Emlyn, you feel, must be a Welsh relative of Private Pike, keeping his scarf on all the time, even in the shower. There was a nice touch to show how you can smoke a pipe while having a shower incidentally, in case you have ever wondered  – just turn the bowl upside down . . . just be careful where any hot ashes fall. The explanation in A&E would be interesting.

Then we had Huw Llywelyn's Mr Jones, singing a bar behind everyone else, Mr Jones being stone deaf, but at least he could sit up correctly – an attribute perhaps less commendable when we discovered this could well be down to his piles and prostrate problems.

All's fair in love and choir contests and our intrepid choristers kidnap a specialist yodeler – don’t ask – from the pub in the next village, Bryn  the Brewer, sung – and yodelled – by Feargal Mostyn-Williams who sports that rarest of male voices, countertenor, and sings it with some style, perhaps best seen in his appearances with The Welsh Rarebits.

The Rarebits being a sort of Andrews Sisters, Beverley Sisters swing group with Nafissatou Batu Daramy as Blodwen, Angharad Morgan as Bronwen and Mezzo-Soprano Angharad Lyddon as Branwen. It might seem strange to have American swing in a miner’s welfare but this was the 1950s, we had had a war with thousands of American servicemen stationed her, American culture had arrived and been embraced.


The Welsh Rarebits, Nafissatou Batu Daramy as Blodwen, Angharad Lyddon as Branwen and Angharad Morgan as Bronwen

And composer David Hackbridge Johnson has taken that on board with swing, a little R&B, a hint of Soul and Jazz as well as the traditional stuff of choirs.

There has to be a baddy, in this case Caradog Probert, sung, or perhaps more often sneered, by Mark Llewelyn Evans, but even he comes round to appreciate the Bethesda Glee Men, or BeeGees for short, a name that was to become known far and wide!

Brassed Off had a political message, remember Phil’s Coco the Scab breakdown, or bandmaster dying Danny’s attack on the Government when the band wins at The Albert Hall? Blaze of Glory has nods to social themes, but no more with National Coal Bloody Board being as far as it goes in attacking Government while there is a hint of racism, culminating in Paul Robeson, who had marched with striking Welsh miners in London in 1926 being banned from visiting the miner’s eisteddfod because the US government had withdrawn his passport.

The racism is highlighted by Anthony, played by Birmingham Conservatoire trained Themba Mvula, who brings a bluesy piano and fine baritone voice to the party. Anthony might not be a miner but he has a bond with the miners, feeling at home in a community which does not judge him on the colour of his face.

anthony on piano

Rebecca Evans as Nerys Price, Themba Mvula as Anthony and Feargal Mostyn-Williams as Bryn the Brewer

He is based on a real person, as are many of the characters, even the yodelling Bryn. Anthony’s source was an African American serviceman, who was hardly welcome when the war was over but found a home with the miners, like him, an often oppressed minority. Many Afro Caribbean men worked in the mines in the 50s and had a saying that summed up that feeling of brotherhood – “we’re all black underground”. It might have PC watchers twitching these days but anyone who has seen miners walk from the cage after a shift, or has been down a working pit, will know exactly what it means.

But that is as far as it goes, one song and a reference to Robeson, in what is a light hearted musical comedy, leaving the social themes for another day, with some lovely lines, quirky characters and the quite magnificent WNO male chorus given full reign, augmented at times by The City of Birmingham Male Voice Choir formed by the recent combining of the Birmingham Icknield Male Voice Choir and Birmingham Canoldir Male Choir.

Not to be left out it is the ladies of the chorus who set the scene and the tone with their glorious opening. The musical has lyrics by Emma Jenkins, lyrics which have wit and charm in equal measure - and respect for being the first person I can recall who has managed to get masculinity into the lyrics of a song! The music enhanced by the WNO orchestra under conductor Stephen Higgins.

Madeleine Boyd’s design is an exercise in simplicity with the huge winding gear wheel slowly turning the reminder this is about pit closures and miners. The opening is clever with eight door panels reversed and aided by Elanor Higgins’ lighting, turning into first the cage then the coal face as we join the helmeted and head lamped miners on a shift.

Director, and choreographer, Caroline Clegg has done a fine job keeping up a good pace around some terrific choral work to create a fun, well balanced musical, which has its moving moments and a quite emotional ending to complete wonderfully entertaining evening.

There was a nice touch at the opened when the orchestra, choirs and backstage chorus struck up with the National Anthem on the day of the Coronation, with most of the audience standing and singing, and I haven’t heard that in a theatre since I was a child.

Roger Clarke



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