‘Three words to describe this show…Important, relevant and thrilling.’
Steve Marmion, Lyricist and Director.
Only the Brave is nominally a story of bravery in the Second World War but in actuality it is that and so much more. This show was first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of 2008. Now with this latest production by the Wales Millennium Centre, Soho Theatre, Daniel Sparrow Productions and Birdsong Productions it combines a multi-faceted presentation with stunning performances. By the end of the night, the audience has been in tears before rising to spontaneous standing ovations.
The rafters of the auditorium have been well and truly raised with the cheering and the demographics have not been confined to any particular generation. People of all ages have responded to the story. It appears, then, that the above quote of Steve Marmion’s has been endorsed by the people who really matter: the audience.
Described by the authors, book (Rachel Wagstaff), music (Matthew Brind) and lyrics (Steve Marmion) as having been inspired by real people and true events, Only the Brave is elevated above the normal retelling of pivotal moments in a war fought long ago. This is established in the opening scene, set in the present time and featuring Second World War veteran Peter Davies playing the role of John Howard Senior.
The narrative rapidly reverses to the time of WW2 and the young John Howard is being briefed on an upcoming mission to spearhead the planned invasion by capturing and securing the Benouville Bridge. Without this bridge, the Allied troops would have been severely hindered.
However, important as this story line is, it is only one strand of the complex cloth that is woven in song, movement and narrative. The second strand is the story of the women at home who shouldered the burden of labour there in jobs that had hitherto been the domain of men, changing the roles of women forever. Thirdly, there is the story of the young French girl whose efforts to join the resistance saved the mission. This is a true story taken from the pages of history and it’s as dramatic as any fiction could be.
There is a lot of narrative to pack into one musical and the action switches from one country to another swiftly. It’s the clear direction of Marmion that enables audiences to navigate the pathways in the story. Often there is action in all three locations at the same time. The players weave in and out of each other’s scenes and audiences need to work to keep up with the fast pace.
However the effort pays off and the juxtaposition of places overlapping on the stage ties the strands of the story together very effectively. There are times when tension is created and extenuated by this device as the narrative heads towards its climax.
One of these outstanding scenes is the beginning of the second act. In the story of the men at war it’s time for action as the glider prepares to crash land at the bridge; the ladies are at the communications centre anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones whilst fulfilling their vital roles back home; and in the resistance there is critical news to convey. All of this happens at the same time across the stage. The narrative is told in music, words and movement and is breath-taking in its complexity and the depth of emotion evoked. It is very ably supported with some fabulous effects of lighting, smoke and pyrotechnics producing a very satisfying result.
The design concept of this production is just as complex as the story. Malcolm Rippeth has produced a lighting design that works well with the multi-focus nature of the action. It also has to comply with a multi-layered confection of projections. The video and projection design was achieved by Dick Straker with the use of a plethora of images layered on to two surfaces and sometimes more.
The tangible set pieces are a multi-purpose set of military like steps, tables and set pieces that fir together like jigsaw puzzles and are moved around the stage by cast members. In line with the constant movement of the narrative, the steps are often being propelled around the stage whist the actors walk up and over and around. Michael Vale has used lateral thinking in his design to work within the complex framework of the play.
There is an ensemble cast of fifteen with some actors doubling in their roles with great dexterity. The central character of Captain John Howard is played by David Thaxton with great power. His singing voice embodies the character’s strength and his solo section of Band of Brothers is extremely moving. The number kicks into the stratosphere when his voice is joined by those of the rest of the troop. His comrade in arms, Lieutenant Denham Brotheridge is equally strong, played by Neil McDermott who he endears himself as a character firstly with the men under his care, but very importantly, with the audience.
The rest of the male cast thrill the audience with their energetic and skilful performances but special mention must be made of another stand out scene. Thomas Aldridge excels in his moment of humanity in What the Hell Am I Doing? This song for character, Wally Parr, comes at a crucial moment of the action, when danger is approaching. It’s the job of Parr to fire the salvo to halt the attack. Aldridge delivers the moment of insight and determination with total commitment.
This is also where the narrative is lifted beyond mere re-telling and becomes more of a discourse of the nature of being brave. It’s having the courage to be humane as much as having the courage to face danger.
In the lead role of Joy Howard, Caroline Sheen sparkles with her warmth, her energy and her superb singing. Every note is as clear as a bell and beautiful. Emilie Fleming sings the opening and closing solo phrases of the women’s song, Regret and Sympathy. The women sing as they type the many letters of condolence sent after the beginning of the invasion. In a heartbreaking moment of the final letter-to Joy- Fleming is joined vocally by Grahame MacDuff in the role of General Gale.
Clever choreography by Alistair David accompanies this song, a moment of softness that contrast effectively to the high octane choreography of the training scenes.
The final strand of narrative is set in France. This is the one strand that is not quite as well defined as the others. It’s difficult to tell at first that the hospital is in France. The greater part of these scenes is spoken in English rather than in French or German as would have been the case naturally. With little available to visually define the location and with no accents by the performers it is left to the background score to provide the French element. However once the location is understood by the audience, subsequent scenes in France are easily identified as such.
The two women, Nikki Mae as the café worker turned resistance fighter Isabelle and Helen Hobson as Madame Vion work well together and the scenes towards the end of the play are very moving. Can it be True? is a lovely duet for them.
Finally, the band under the direction of musical director Greg Arrowsmith may be small in number for this particular production but they are a powerhouse of musical sound. They storm through the beautiful score of Matthew Brind sounding like an ensemble double their size. Particularly enjoyable are the moments when they change the timbre of the ensemble to underscore the action, becoming the dance band in one scene and the music of Paris in another.
Only the Brave is a new musical by British authors relating a story about British people in a uniquely British event. Yet there is a broader relevance in its attitudes to conflict and bravery.
Above all, it’s a wonderful night at the theatre.