As the 75th anniversary weekend of VE Day drew to a close, the musical Only The Brave drew my attention as a perfect way to spend an afternoon. Recorded at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff (the show opened in 2016) it is the rousing story of the taking of Pegasus Bridge which effectively stopped a German counterattack after the D Day landings in Normandy. The operation was led by Major John Howard and Lieutenant Den Brotheridge; the musical makes their story and that of their wives, Joy and Maggie, the central focus.
There is no denying that this is a spectacular show which treats its subjects with respect and admiration and gives as much time and attention to those left behind as those fighting in France. The audience is inexorably drawn into this real-life story following the setting up and training of D Company and the execution of their mission. However, these undoubted heroes are not overly sanitised so that the human flaws of the participants are clearly on display. This stops the piece become sentimentalised and is probably all the more effective for it. Howard, in David Thaxton’s strong performance, is particularly shown to be a hard task master but one who undoubtedly earned the respect of his troops. Neil McDermott as Brotheridge showed a more human face which provided a sense of balance and contrast. As the two wives, Caroline Sheen and Emilie Fleming inevitably have a rather less dramatic story arc but the fact that their story is included at all suggests they were also among “the brave” of the title. The rest of the ensemble are incredibly hard working. A poignant touch (although I only discovered this afterwards) is having the brief appearance of the older Howard played by a real-life service veteran.
Rachel Wagstaff’s script is too long by some half an hour and there seemed to be several points where the climax seemed to come only for the piece to continue. A subplot about a young French resistance fighter played by Nikki Mae didn’t really seem to fit the overall structure. Though it was clearly linked to the main plot – she and a local nurse provide the intelligence on which the British operation is based – it all seemed rather bolted on and, if anything, drew focus from the main proceedings. Perhaps it was there to demonstrate the barbarity of the regime against which the British troops were fighting but does that really need to be spelled out? In any case the Nazis were portrayed over stereotypically – and why did only one of them appear to have an accent?
The Millennium Centre is big and needs a lot of filling – especially when battle scenes are being portrayed. A huge screen was used to delineate the many (and there were many) locations while basic staging was whisked on and off by the ensemble. Some sets of metal stairs were constantly in use being wheeled into various positions against which the cast could work; at one point they were used to represent the glider in which the soldiers landed. At times there was simply too much going on to keep up with different storylines developing simultaneously on discrete areas of the stage; this may have worked well for live audiences who can look where they will but, on video, selections were being made by a third party and I kept feeling I was missing something more interesting going on elsewhere. Movement seemed to be constant which gave the show huge momentum but led to cast members hurrying on, delivering two lines and then disappearing again which hardly suggests any depth. There was also a lot of furious doubling by some members of the cast. Max Bowden was one moment portraying the youngest member of the company heartbroken at being left behind and then seconds later reappearing as a young German soldier in a completely different storyline. The piece would definitely have benefitted from having one or two more supporting players and, at times, a less frantic style.
The music by Matthew Brind and lyrics by Steve Marmion (who also directed) was suitably stirring though it became a bit “samey” after a while with characters mostly emoting directly to the audience. When something different came along (e.g. the boxing routine) the musical side took off. The song which really took things in a different direction was an interesting little number about the pleasures of tea. A thoroughly British obsession, it seemed rather oddly placed in the middle of the battle scenes but it did provide some welcome respite from the tension. Never mind the overthrow of fascism; it is the eternal debate over whether milk goes in first or last which is really paramount!
Production photos by Helen Maybanks
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