Wales Millennium Centre 28 March – 2 April. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
What a show!
Think Dambusters or Cockleshell Heroes with songs, and you get the tone of this wonderful, very British musical. There’s even a number called “Cuppa Tea”! In the middle of a battle. Makes you proud to be British – not in an “I’m joining UKIP and leaving the EU” way, but reminding us of the extraordinary courage and resilience of ordinary men and women, and what they were fighting for.
Based on true events leading up to the D Day landings, Only The Brave tells the story of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry’s mission to secure Benouville Bridge, and the French Resistance operatives risking their lives for vital intelligence. Captain John Howard (David Thaxton – channelling every tyrannical sergeant major known to man, but triumphing in the character’s gentler, emotional moments) and his lieutenant, Denham Brotheridge (the fantastic Neil McDermott) train their company relentlessly while their wives Joy and Maggie (Caroline Sheen and Emilie Fleming) work for the ATS. Meanwhile in France 15 year old Isabelle (Nikki Mae) begs to be allowed to collect information for the Resistance from the Germans who frequent the local café.
Matthew Brind’s music and director Steve Marmion’s lyrics take you on a roller coaster of emotions and soaring strings, with no weak songs in the show, although for me, “You Can Say No (But I Know You Won’t)” did try to cram in a little too much – introducing the main characters very quickly, but I can understand the need for this with such a detailed story to tell. Rachel Wagstaff’s book is full of humour and respect for the characters. Lots of war film clichés are present. There’s the harsh training and eventual camaraderie of the troops, the pregnant wives and the underage virgin soldier to name just a few – but they fit perfectly into the story. Even the running joke involving the comedy Welshman is beautifully written – paying off brilliantly during the tense scenes on the bridge.
What this musical does so well is to not glorify war, instead celebrating the bravery (and sometimes idiocy) of those involved on both sides. In “What The Hell Am I Doing?” Wally (Thomas Aldridge) is desperately trying to turn the German tank driver he is aiming his weapon at into a monster in his head, but can only think of their similarities in a moving and humanising moment before the violence. Yes there is a nasty German officer, but he is traumatised by his family’s experience in WW1, and his commanding officer is written to be as professional and honourable as the British. The role of women in the war is highlighted too, with Caroline Sheen’s number “Just Because” is a stirring feminist rallying cry, and “Regret and Sympathy” portrays the endless telegrams sent to bereaved families simply but oh so effectively.
Set designer Michael Vale cleverly uses projection and interconnecting steps and trestles to create bomb shelters, offices, training grounds, Benouville Bridge and, most spectacularly, a glider. And, just like the war, the women are doing most of the donkeywork pushing these around! Throughout the show, as a song is being sung in one location, silent action continues dramatically alongside. This is a powerful story telling device, and means that the songs are fully part of the story, unlike in some musicals. This is most effective during the second act when the mission is underway, but also provided the most spine-tingling moments of the night when the soldiers are singing “Band Of Brothers” (magnificent – if Churchill had access to that song, the war would have a lot shorter) while a violent interrogation is silently taking place in France. And the ending! The cast relate the fates of the real people portrayed in the show, and salute them all, including the real WWII veteran that will be playing John Howard as an old man each night.
Only The Brave is one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time. It is beautifully staged and performed. Not showy or cheesy, just telling this amazing story with wit, charm, respect… and a nice cup of tea.