Only The Brave – Musical [First Impressions and Story Synopsis]

Following is my initial impression of the new musical ‘Only the Brave’ premiering at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. I will write a more thorough review later this week.

First let me give you a few videos and information in case you are not already familiar with it:

Donald Gordon Theatre

Created by Wales Millennium Centre with Soho Theatre, Daniel Sparrow Productions & Birdsong Productions
Only The Brave
A New Musical

28 Mar – 02 Apr 2016

Previews: Mon – Wed £11 – £25* Premium Packages*** £35*
Thu – Sat £14 – £29* Premium Packages*** £39*

Age Guidance: 11+ (No under 2s)

Only the Brave is an epic new musical about love, friendship and, above all, hope.

Starring Emilie Fleming (Les Misérables, Oliver!), Neil McDermott (EastEnders, Shrek The Musical), Caroline Sheen (Mary Poppins, Les Misérables) and David Thaxton (Les Misérables, Love Never Dies), this moving new musical delves into the lives of the men and women who made the most astonishing sacrifices in order to protect their country and provide a better future for those they loved.

Based on the true events leading up to the D-Day landings, Only the Brave follows a group of men embarking on the ultimate mission, the friendship of two women united by love and loss, and the bravery of a young French girl determined to play her part.

In collaboration with the team behind the stunning UK tour of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and with an original score by Cardiff born composer Matthew Brind, Wales Millennium Centre is proud to create and première this home-grown musical that will send your heart soaring.

Book by Rachel Wagstaff
Music by Matthew Brind
Directed by Steve Marmion
Original concept by Steve Coleman, Matthew Brind & Rachel Wagstaff
Lyrics by Steve Marmion


Synopsis and Review

I typed this on my phone during the intermission and after the show so some events may be out of order and it is a very scrappy account of the proceedings. As this is the first time this musical has been performed it is natural that you will not pick up the names of all the characters initially but, to the productions credit,  I found that they were all very distinct and I would suggest that any criticisms in this regard only be challenged by asking if the same critic can name all the individual protesting students, who each have a distinct characteristic, during Marius’ scenes of Les Miserables even all these years later after its international success and social osmosis.

PART 1

The first few scenes had ‘muddy’ sound quality at the start and also something I will often come back to in the proper review: the use of simultaneous scenes occurring on stage leading the audience to miss events. The very first scene is of an old man, John Howard, in a care home lying on a bed who gets up and faces his younger self. We are introduced to Captain (later Major) John Howard and Lieutenant Denham Brotheridge courting their respective wives prior to enlistment. During this people run back and forth on stage to show the build up to war and it all seems very confusing.

There is a mix of song quality and nothing feels memorable but perhaps in time would be. Certainly the initial sound quality spoiled the opening pieces. The first few bits with moving stairs is overkill pre-enlistment as they never seem to stop moving them in order to impress up on the audience how much activity there was occurring. The lightweight staircases are used throughout the performance to emulate military locations, the small housing of the nurse’s office, at the start of the second half the aeroplane being flown and at the end the bridge they have their mission at.

As they are back projected a shiloette of one onto the ‘safety curtain’ I suppose at some point the production decided, of all the things in this musical, this scenery prop is what they want to be the iconic image. Phantom of the Opera has the mask, Les Mis has the illustration of Cosette as a child with the tricolor, Oklahoma has the map of the state, various musicals have the title done in a stylised way… and Only The Brave has a stage prop. It seemed an odd choice that this be the audience’s first image of the performance.

After the initial ‘we are real men’ macho events of John knocking out all his group during some boxing training (and he becomes regional champion possibly? I wasn’t clear what was happening as this part moved so quickly) to assert he is the alpha male and lead. Also at this point someone introduces Tony ‘Darky’ Baines. I think it is the ‘Jesus’ lieutenant saying “but everyone calls him that” but not John. There is no racism in his unit which feels like quite an anachronistic, politically correct, view. It may be true historically, as this is based on real events, but when we have Prince Harry referring to one of his colleagues by the nickname Raghead a few years ago, and such nicknames are common place in the armed forces as a demonstration of mental toughness and brotherhood, it seemed a bit too forced to suggest this would have been challenged in the 1940s. Hopefully I am wrong but it felt too forced a moment during the performance.

There is also a Welsh character who keeps turning up late to practise. I wonder, should the musical tour, if this role will be changed to which ever region they perform at or the character will always be Welsh thus presenting us as as dim witted, late to everything and as a potential liability on the mission. In the second half he somehow disappears after the plane crash only to reappear to deliver the same running ‘Sorry I’m late’ joke for the final time during a skirmish where other team members have died.

 John’s first, comedy relief, lieutenant is introduced saying ” I’m Jesus”. John looks at him blankly. “Jesus Christ College, Cambridge. You?” The boy, in officer’s uniform, assumes John is of the educated social elite, not working class, due to being in a commanding role. A few minutes later this lieutenant is joking to one side with another ‘elite’ about some one shooting a hose thinking it was a snake. John is not impressed and makes it clear to the general requesting a replacement. The general, whenever he pops up, makes french jokes such as “Whats the difference between a Frenchman and toast? You can make soldiers out of toast”. He does this a few more times throughout until the intel in the final act proves to have been useful and he says he always believed in the French. Another ‘upper class twit’ character.

We finally reach what would be the start point of any other production i.e. John’s first encounter with Denham and their immediate camaraderie. They bond over the fact they both like football, played a bit of it too, they both have, or will by the end, have pregnant wives. Good, honest, salt of the Earth, blokey, Working Class, subjects of conversation. Good old fashioned caricatures of what it is to be real men.

John’s group, unit B, is for good, hard working, salt of the earth, Working Class Lads not toffs. Really the start of the musical hammers this in. I have to wonder if this was to appease the Welsh audience who they no doubt believe hold similar views? John wants Denham as his lieutenant but Denham is dedicated to being part of Company D who he already belongs to. He insists and gets his way. Later on Unit D are mentioned again in a moment of appraisal from the general and sound like they were doing well while John seems to struggle between being a stiff upper lipped leader and ‘one of the lads’ at Denham’s insistence because “They will be more willing to die for you then”.

We get some training scenes, which are very well choreographed,  and the Captain becomes ‘one of the lads’ after buying them a crate of beers and getting dragged into going to a dance hall with them. His Lieutenant and he bond over their pregnancy wives.

So far I haven’t really mentioned the scenes ‘back home’ featuring the women. To be honest they seem an ill fit with the military side of the story. Its too awkward a juxtaposition and I think that, for me, it was more about how they segwayed between the two scenes or used the stairwells, with seating, to elevate the women chatting on sofa’s about ‘women’s troubles during the war’. The dialogue seems to do little except convey an oddly archiac stereotype of the mentality of women during the time. These are not women ‘doing their bit but preoccupied with being pregnant and recounting hearing from their significant others as if that is their lot in life. It almost feels as if these scenes are tacked on as if a producer, or someone else with clout, said at a late stage production announced ‘this needs more women’ and they had to accommodate at short notice.

However there is one female role , or two though the nurse’s significance doesnt become apparent until the end, which is well conceived. A French waitress offers to aid the resistance in France as she can speak perfect German and therefore would be a key asset in getting information to aid the cause. The nurse, who informs the resistance, refuses telling her she is only a girl. The girl, Isabelle, insists and the nurse relents. Thus Isabelle goes on to spy on the German officers who discuss their orders openly in the cafe under the mistaken belief she cannot understand them. There is a running side story explaining her motivation and I felt this was if anything underplayed considering the message of the musical. Her mother said the Germans did not belong in France and for this was tied to a tree, shot and Isabelle was told not to bury the body for 24 hours. During this time she held her dead mother’s hand and her hatred of the German’s festered. This backstory is played out low lit in the background of some of Isabelle’s scenes (performed by the other ensemble actresses) and at first felt jarring as it is in such stark contrast to other events in the first act which almost come across as an homage to the ‘jolly old war’ sanitised unreal tone of films from the 1950s depicting the events of war time squadrons.

In contrast to Isabelle, who is on the front lines risking her life, the wives back home become typists for the war effort and discuss a bit more how pregnant they are and if it will be a boy or girl and how they want their significant other to see the child (in case they die out on the front). Honestly the more I think about it the more it rings true that this has the tone of a 1950s film. Perhaps that was the intention though nowhere in the press releases etc did it imply this.

So the dance hall events come to an end and John is told that due to weight issues he should leave one of his men behind. He goes to ask them and says there is no shame in wanting to go home (well except the massive amount of ‘what did you do in the war daddy?’ style social pressure propaganda and living the rest of your life with that shame –  no none at all). No one volunteers. He is proud of them. Eventually he has the youngest, who is 16 not 19, and hasn’t even kissed a girl until tonight, not go on the mission and gives the crying boy a fatherly hug. He is a father to his men in case it was too subtle. We are men with gusto. No intellectuals here. Just good honest Working Class blokes. Wear our hearts on our sleeves. Do what needs to be done no matter the cost. Each has a purpose e.g the medic (Welsh as his mother was a nurse), the pilot, the munitions guy, etc. Also the General casually informs John he is now a Major in rank prior to the mission. At some point the ‘best marksman’ on the team shoots Denham in the leg during a training exercise but John doesn’t report him and Denham forgives him. (which later leads into the moral of ‘choosing forgiveness over vengeance is the braver act’ the musical wishes to display).

Throughout the musical the humour feels weakly implemented although I could chalk it up to the audience not knowing when to laugh (which is an annoying import from American sit-coms which have laughter tracks to tell you when something is funny and you should laugh like a trained seal) so the General is laughed with, not at, for his anti-French comments at the moment despite him being a caricature of the ‘stiff upper lip’ upper class twit you usually see in war films. The audience hasn’t ‘learned’ when it is appropriate to laugh during this performance yet… as much as I hate to suggest such a cue for audience reaction exists.

The German General and Officer realise that Isabelle understands what they are saying and reporting it to the resistance. The general leaves and the Officer beats Isabelle up. He then hands a gun to his teenage subordinate, who for no real reason mentions his father shot himself during the Great War, to kill Isabelle. He can’t bring himself to do it.  Last song before end act 1 is very good obviously as they want you to come back for the second half, and the stage fades to black with Unit B preparing to take flight in the plane, the German youth stood over Isabelle holding the gun and John’s wife holding their child stood on one of the stairwells as a symbol of the women left behind.

They over do it with the moveable stairwells. Technically good but story is naff patriotic material from an old movie.

PART 2

A muddled start again as they simultaneously play out the flight and its difficulties, the wives in the typist pool and the young Germany demanding Isabelle give him some scrap of information to take back to his superiors in exchange for letting her go. The plane, represented by 4 of the stairwells being used in conjunction (rotating on stage with a back projected front of place window) crashes, the German youth holds the gun to Isabelle but ultimately let’s her go as he cannot bring himself to kill someone and the typing pool… types out letters of condolence. Sorry but the women’s scenes really are not gelling well with the other aspects. It may be the bright colours or the tone of their songs. It comes across as ‘well sucks to be you risking life and limb in the battle zone’ unintentionally. You are torn between focusing on the flight of Unit B or Isabelle’s impending death so the typists is an extra layer on top but clashes with the tone of the other parts.

Also there is a recurring mention of John having some form of issue with flying and we are finally told what it is as he lies shivering on the floor of the plane. He passes out at the start of flights due to nerves… or something. If this happened to the man in real life I understand its inclusion but it feels awkwardly included in this musical. I would prefer that when it is first mentioned by the General in the first half they just state it all then not have what amounts to exposition as they are flying into enemy territory. If it was omitted it wouldn’t affect the narrative.

There are a lot of pyrotechnics at the start of the second half so bear that in mind if you are of a weak disposition… or just don’t want to be caught unaware. It explains where much of the budget went and why back projection and the stairwells are the major props for most of the run time of the musical.

We then have the aftermath of the crashed flight. The stairwells are overturned and the soldiers are scattered across the stage. The audience hardly had time to take everything in. Personally I was focused on the conflict of Isabelle slowly walking across the front of stage with her back to the German youth who is begging her for some crumb of information so he can return without risk of execution (implied rather than explicitly stated) or otherwise he will have to shoot her. Isabelle doesn’t care for her own life only vengeance. He doesnt shoot her and breaks down.

A call is made to the General, via the damaged wireless, and due to poor reception it is reported John, now a Major in rank, has a ‘mortal’ not a ‘mortar’ wound but reported due to misheard think it’s mortal.

We then have a dedicated scene of the typing pool (actually the song here might occur later in a mirrored scene for Denham’s wife) who sing the generic ‘with sincere regret and apologies’ standard message they type in synchronicity ‘notices of the deceased’ letters to be sent to the families of dead soldiers and the General marches in to inform John’s wife of the erroneous news.

Then we have the most jarring scene of the entire musical. One of John’s men has bad nerves and is shaking severely. One soldier suggests having  a cup of tea to John’s disbelief. Suddenly the shivering soldier, miraculously recovered, shows he brought everything to make tea including a tin mug. John admonishes him saying that only what was absolutely necessary was to be brought. “But tea is essential” the soldier chimes back. What about everyone else then? asks John, at which point all of them produce their own tin cups and an extra one for their leader. A bit of humour during a tense moment. Personally I just found it jarring enough already but then…

In the middle of a stand off battle on the bridge where a tank is heading towards them the  soldiers sing about tea! What the hell? Then to one side the typing pool ladies also sing about having a cup of tea. We are British therefore we worship tea obviously. In the American version they would sing about coffee, the German version beer and the Russian version vodka it goes without saying. It is so out of place in tone it is almost surreal. I have to assume this happened in real life as this would otherwise be such a demonstration of inept understanding of narrative tone as to be insulting. It is the tone of the song more so than its subject matter though. Having a small comfort; be it tea, a keepsake of a loved one, talking of happier things, etc could be so much better implemented. in such odds it would be understandable a solider wanted some such catharsis but it could have been far better dealt with than a big fun music hall like jaunty tune of ‘tea is great, tea is the best, we love tea, its better than the rest’ song in the middle of a battle field. Reality is stranger than fiction.

Back to bridge n explosives guy does a solo while telling us his life story. He is a goner you think but no the damaged rocket device doesn’t blow him up. We then get a back projected tank image burst into flames while some more pyrotechnics go off. They notice someone was inside and one soldier runs off, against John’s orders, to save the boy. It turns out he saved the German  youth from earlier and so he is taken prisoner.

Isabelle and the nurse are both prisoners tied to a bed after being captured by the German General. The German Officer wants to shoot them but he is denied as the German General tells him that they are like birds protecting their nest and cannot be hated for this so he intends to keep them here until after the nearby battle. He begins the title song ‘Only The Brave Forgive’ and this is echoed by John during one of this musical’s simultaneous scenes. This is an immensely powerful piece and that it is the German General, not a member of the Allied Forces, makes it all the more powerful.

Although the musical plays up much to the patriotism of its influences at least in this regard it does the right thing. The German General and youth represent conscious human beings swept up in the globally genocidal machinations of their high command. The General brings to mind the respect that Rommel, the Desert Fox, gained from Allied Forces for being a humane and professional officer who ignored orders to kill indiscriminately. Whether this is more myth than fact is disputable but certainly it seems this post-war image of a noble enemy is present in the General’s depiction here. He and the youth (and by extension possibly it could be inferred the youth’s father) are still able to see the human beings they are fighting, and who have a right to oppose them, rather than an target that is to be destroyed under the justification they are just following orders from their authority figures.

However Isabelle cannot forgive. She intends to kill the German officer.For some could completely ruin the moment as it happens far too quickly after the previous song and we as an audience have not had time to process the proceeding moment. She is meant to be the contrast to John, Denham, the enlisted German youth (arguably) and the German General – they can forgive but she cannot. Not because she is a woman, as seems implied by the depiction of the British women, but because she does not have the perspective the soldiers have. They are men fighting in a foreign country and when they go home the barren, ash covered, landscape of the battlefield will be far behind them. They can look to their homelands while she is here, in the battle zone. This land which was once her home is now a burning hell of mortar fire, soldiers and death. She is as the German General describes a bird protecting its nest from invaders and should not be thought any less of for doing so. Another aspect of the forgiveness aspect I feel it quickly glanced over at the end is that we are seeing the recollections of John as a hospitalised old man and he met the German General in his later years so this is a reflection on his experiences not an unbiased presentation, even if glamourised and patriotic, of events. At the time he probably wasn’t as forgiving as depicted in the show but in time gained perspective.

The German officer seems to serve the role of ‘evil’ German as he is given no real character beyond following the party line and his orders – however this is as much as any of the other secondary characters so arguably he is in line with the caricatures we are otherwise presented with.

 Before the fly over the English General says he always thought the French were good people because of the useful intel he received which aids the war effort and saved men’s lives. So this character is redeemed I suppose. He seemed more of a mockable figure than anything.

Isabelle and Madame Vion tell each other their names as they had never done so before. This is a major turning point in Isabelle’s narrative as it is the first time she has shown confidence in another albeit someone who already knew her tragic history.

Hold onto your hats because the last sequence is so chaotic you will only be focusing on one thing. Isabelle intends to escape by grabbing the German Officers gun. During this struggle we simultaneously have this event, the Unit B soldiers at bridge in a fire fight,, John’s wife wanders about with baby. Stuff happens. Isabelle is shot and the German Officer runs off stage never to be seen again. Denham dies of his mortar neck wound and John throws the German youth to the ground wanting to execute him in revenge but cannot allow himself to do it no matter how torn apart he is by his friend’s death and let’s the boy go.  Then the wives in the typing pool know the operation was a success. John’s wife finds out he survived but Denham’s wife knows hers didn’t. They seemed to want to mirror the female characters but… it doesn’t work for a number of reasons.

Then immediately we are given a post log saying what happened to the real life people and the Old John comes back on as a bookend closing the narrative. ‘Welshy and Baines I don’t think are mentioned… so both of them were fictional then. The window washer/heavy arms guy just kind of snuck up in the second act as a notable character in Unit B…

The actors all take their bows. They come on a second time and the old man with no lines and on stage for all of 4 minutes gets a bigger applause than the actors who have been doing very physical work throughout. One of the women wanted to come out and take one more round of bows but the others wouldn’t come back out. That’s sad. This is the first night and its at Wales’ major theatrical venue… they got less of a response than a poorly received and performed middle of the road safe humour play with an actor decades out of relevance (Yes I am thinking of a particular play so don’t take this as my general view on showing appreciation to seasoned performers but the cast and production staff for Only The Brave deserved far more of a recognition considering the mammoth task they took on)

So… Welsh guys always late in training and the operation compared to the Englishmen so he is a mockable caricature. Lots of the moving staircases to the point it feels like they spent more time on choreographing that than refining the pacing of the story. The transitions and simultaneous acting out of differing scenes means the audience hasn’t a chance to absorb anything. Personally I focused on the Isabelle parts as this feels like where the production if further refined should  focus itself more. Show us the work of the French resistance and how they are not the mockable ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ that so often get depicted in American and British films.

Summary Review

Despite everything critical I have said this is a production worth seeing. It is in its infancy and WMC’s first home produced musical. I feel the setting of a World War 2 military operation was perhaps a bit too ‘safe’ a subject matter to adapt but if this is what is needed for them to gain their footing and move onto more daring matter in future I welcome it. The music is hit or miss for the most part barring the end of the first half, the ‘We Regret to inform you’ song and the title song ‘Only The Brave Forgive’. Nothing is perfect on opening night and I think with time with a few adjustments to pacing and considerations  towards how to meld it into a single coherent narrative rather than 3 which simultaneously occur this production has the potential to be a long runner. Remember Les Miserables and many other classics were damned when they first came out but in time found their groove, made the necessary adjustments to pacing and even removing or replacing songs before hitting their stride. This was a big undertaking and everyone involved should be credited for taking what is a historic moment in Wales’ Arts history. I am glad I saw it and hope to see it again years from now when they have had time and perspective to reflect what works and what needs adjusting. And now to end of some trite line like professional journalists…. ‘Only the brave forgive’ but there is no need to with this excellent, if currently flawed, production.


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mrhearne

Poetry, theatre, literature, films, reviews and various other matters.

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