Keli is a three-part audio drama about brass band competitions and their connection to former mining towns. If that sounds like a history lesson in the legacy of Britain’s industrial past, to some extent it is.
A kind of audio montage, it begins partly documentary, partly fable, partly history in the making, all these threads punctuated by the rumble of brass sounds (music by Whitburn Band).
It is co-created by Wils Wilson and composer-writer Martin Green and we follow Green’s on-and-off storytelling across Scotland. He combines his year-long research into marching band music with a fictionalized story of a working-class teenager, Keli (Anna Russell-Martin). She’s a talented tenor horn player who grew up caring for her mother, and Green is building her character and her voice, alongside several others.
Directed by Wilson, the metafictional framing sucks life from the first episode, which feels like a series of confusing stops and starts. It’s hard to keep track of Keli’s budding story amid the jumble of other voices; there are snippets of vox pops from old mining towns spliced with Keli’s vocals and parts of a fable (about a stranger in a village).
Green inserts his narrative alongside all these layers, adds whimsical interjections and reflections. His lyrics – sometimes complacent in their lyricism – sound like jaded interruptions. “If I need a story, I need a protagonist. Who is this player? he says, and later gives us a brief history of a power station when Keli takes refuge there.
It’s hard to navigate the patchwork of voices at first and you don’t always know what’s going on or who’s speaking. But midway through the second episode, the narrator’s voice begins to melt away and the layers of music and dialogue become orchestral.
The play becomes more engrossing as Keli’s story takes center stage, and this story has none of the bonhomie or light, fuzzy edges of Brassed Off; it’s a tough story about the limits placed on some working-class lives, capturing the despair, depression and adolescent fulfillment through music.
There are powerful flashpoints and tensions between the characters, and the combined forces of dialogue, music, and folklore come together in a gripping finale that’s definitely worth the wait.