Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Eight years in the making, Wales Millennium Centre’s first own main stage co-production, Only the Brave, has finally premiered and it is nothing short of spectacular. When so much of a musical theatre’s charm is often found in the recognisable songs and remaking of a well-known classic, to launch an entirely new production, and one with a subject matter portrayed through as many different mediums as World War Two has been, is a bold and ambitious undertaking. Somehow, the cast and creative team have created a show which, even upon first viewing, has the aura of one of the established greats whilst still feeling fresh and contemporary.
Only the Brave follows a small company of soldiers training to take Benouville Bridge (later renamed Pegasus Bridge) in preparation for the D-Day landings, focusing chiefly on the story of Captain John Howard (David Thaxton) and Lieutenant Denholm Brotheridge (Neil McDermott) and their wives, Joy (Caroline Sheen) and Maggie (Emilie Fleming). It is inspired by true events taken from the accounts of people who experienced that day. Striking scenery is interspersed with real footage, giving the show a raw edge of horror and sorrow, further amplified by the authenticity of Rachel Wagstaff’s characters who are beautifully conceived; personalities and mannerisms realistic to the era, without falling into cliché. Every single one is completely believable; paying humble homage to the real people they are inspired by.
Every single aspect of this production is sensational. The live orchestra and beautiful voices of the cast pay tribute to Matthew Brind’s outstanding musical score, song after song filling the entire theatre with the depth of its power and emotion. Alistair David’s choreography is amazing throughout; the taking of the bridge being particularly impressive. As the glider crash lands, the men are thrown from the carrier, moving in flawless slow motion. Explosives detonate, sparks flying across the stage as a whoosh of heat sweeps over the audience and we watch the men’s silhouettes disappear into the billowing smoke, accompanied by the sound of deafening gunshot.
The bond between the group of soldiers is wonderful to watch; a perfect balance is struck between macho competitiveness and a deep love for each other revealed in intimate fragments of emotion. The production is particularly accomplished at seamlessly intertwining contrasting moods, lifting the darkness of the show with moments of a very British humour (an entire song is devoted to tea and “the beasts who put milk in the mug first”), whilst still maintaining a heavy sense of tension and dread.
As its name suggests, Only the Brave has an overarching bravery theme, depicting courage in many different ways; the heroism of the men willingly walking into war, the enduring determination of the women left behind who live each day under the threat of losing their loved ones and the bravery of the little French girl (played wonderfully by Nikki Mae) who risks her life spying on the Germans to pass intelligence to the British so they can take Benouville Bridge. Some of the most poignant scenes are those in which the war and rigidity of the opposing sides fall away, and all that is left are scared young men trying desperately not to surrender their humanity in the killing of the other – watching the hard exterior of a soldier disintegrating, to reveal the fear and vulnerability of the man underneath is a powerful reminder of the true, cruel nature of war.
An especially moving touch is the decision to use Second World War veterans to portray the senior Captain John Howard, seen at the beginning and end of the production. Once the show is complete, the cast stand to attention and tell the stories of what happened to the real soldiers who survived as their photos are projected onto the screen behind. With a final solemn salute from the cast, WMC’s first musical comes to a dramatic close. Rising almost as one in a standing ovation, tears flowing freely down hundreds of cheeks amidst thunderous applause, the raw emotion and awe of the audience are tangible. A stunning feat of truly magnificent theatre, Only the Brave isn’t just honouring history; it’s making it.
(Photo credit Helen Maybanks)