A fallen soldier is carried off stage
Review: Trench Brothers10:00, 19th October 2018
17 October 2018
Trench Brothers is a World War One project developed and delivered by HMDT Music (for more information, see the November 2018 issue of Music Teacher magazine). The package of workshops has been taken into 45 schools across England, helping to bring attention to the stories of Black and Indian soldiers during the war.
The last part of each school’s involvement sees the students perform a show, also called Trench Brothers, to their friends and family. This performance saw several schools from Brighton collaborate on a large-scale performance to serve as a grand send-off for the project as the centenary commemorations draw to a close. The Brighton Dome, which served as a military hospital for Indian soldiers during the conflict, provided the perfect place to bring the project to a close.
The narrative follows Norman Manley and Daulat Khan, played by Cleveland Watkiss and Damian Thantrey respectively, as representatives of the Black and Indian soldiers that the project honours. Their songs take us through their journey to France and relate their respective experience of culture shock and racism on the frontlines. Tertia Sefton-Green’s libretto masterfully engages its adult audience while ensuring that the content remains accessible and understandable to the young people taking part. Julian Joseph and Richard Taylor’s music help to elevate the performance into something wonderful to experience – each character’s culture is reflected in their music and it is a joy to hear different genres and influences being woven together to reinforce the narrative’s themes of camaraderie.
A special mention should go to Cleveland Watkiss (inset), who has played Norman across all 45 performances. His is a spectacular voice that is always a treat to hear, no matter what he is singing. In this case, his aria is especially beautiful, acutely conveying all of the character’s conflicting emotions about his current situation.
While Joseph and Taylor wrote most of the music for the piece, each normal performance has an additional piece of music written by a guest composer who has worked with the students on a letter song, a musical representation of the missives that soldiers sent home. For this final show, nine of these letter songs from across the different iterations of the project were chosen and assembled into a rousing and moving mid-section. The highlight for me was a daring four-part chorus which saw the students conjure up the terrors of the trenches by having four of the songs overlap and crash into one another, throwing up a disturbing set of images. Credit to the directors and school staff who managed to get seven classes of students singing and acting (using puppets built in one of the workshops) together. The school groups were arranged on, above and around the stage – a set-up that the conductor, Lee Reynolds, handled remarkably, with every student group looking at ease in his capable hands.
In keeping with the spirit of cooperation, the production also included young musicians and performers from HMDT Music’s other initiatives. Students from its I Can Sing! Musical theatre programme and the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy gave brilliant performances and it’s a testament to the strength of these programmes that the students were willing to travel out of London on a weeknight.
This was a truly incredible and moving performance that serves as a fitting tribute to the soldiers whose stories are too often left out of the narrative of the war. Judging by the audience’s reaction at the end, it seems they felt the same way as well.