You don’t see all that many new musicals with a large cast these days, at least not outside the West End, so Only The Brave is an extra treat. A joint effort from Soho Theatre, Daniel Sparrow Productions and Birdsong Productions, this production was filmed in 2016 at the Wales Millennium Centre. It tells the true story of a group of soldiers who undertook a dangerous mission, involving landing a glider in too small a space, to access a bridge held by the enemy in support of the D-Day Landings.
This production successfully achieves many difficult things. It’s really hard to recreate warfare on stage convincingly. War Horse does it brilliantly – and for drama, scale and murk, this gets pretty close. Moreover, it’s incredibly difficult to real-time events that cross borders and involve multiple protagonists on stage – but, for the most part, Alistair David‘s smart choreography alongside a versatile set achieve all of that here. There’s a relentless chronology that we need to understand for the story to make sense. Nevertheless, writer Rachel Wagstaff still manages to engage us with the human stories unfolding in and around the timeline.
And it’s really hard to present opposing sides without inviting us to identify with one or the other. This script makes it really clear that the English (and Welsh) and the Germans were both good – and both bad. The murky immoral, amoral, and insensitive impropriety of conflict is depicted with unflinching care.
Cardiff born composer Matthew Brind pens some brilliant songs. Nikki Mae‘s song where she volunteers for the Resistance is beautiful. The plight of women during a war, sending their menfolk off to fight while seeing the opportunity to take more of a role in the working world (remember this was World War Two) is sensitively explored in ‘I Will Close My Eyes’. Likewise, the anthemic ‘Only The Brave’ has all the ear-worming qualities you could hope for. These are greatly supported by Greg Arrowsmith‘s extensive band who sound gorgeous throughout.
The timelines necessitate co-existing scenes, deftly executed by director Steve Marmion. Multiple characters make this a real ensemble piece but there are standout performances from a brusque David Thaxton who thaws gently over the course of the story and an endearing Neil McDermott as the reluctant second in command on the apparently ill-fated mission. And Emilie Fleming is lovely as his patient sweetheart.
There’s an astonishingly theatrical hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment as the performance approaches the curtain call that deserves not to be revealed, but which brings the extraordinary escapades into stark focus. At a time when we possibly all find ourselves behaving in ways we don’t quite expect, this is a fascinating examination of the things we will do to survive.
Only the Brave can be streamed online here.