They may be a staple of British theatre and the culture at large, but I always find myself having something against plays that attempt to eulogise the World Wars. Despite understanding why they’re popular (the setting immediately draws audiences in, due to their cultural importance, and they provide rich emotional conflict and dramatic tension), in my view, they are filled with outdated stereotypes of the British state that, let’s be honest, we have all moved on from. But, even with all my national cynicism, I can’t deny that they’re effective at garnering an emotive response from me, and the 2016 musical Only The Brave (written by Rachel Wagstaff and directed for the Wales Millennium Centre by Steve Marmion) does manage to achieve this.
Only The Brave is set during the Second World War, just before the Allies’ D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944. The story follows a platoon of men who are recruited for a dangerous mission to land in France, secure a bridge under enemy territory, and ensure safe transport for the Allied landings that are soon to follow. The show also follows the dangers faced by French resistance fighters providing intel, and the families and loved ones which the men leave behind back home.
The D-Day landings may seem a strange place to stage a musical, but this show is definitely more in line with an big-scale, operatic style musical (Les Miserables is the obvious comparison in style, with the show even bringing in the show’s alum, Caroline Sheen and David Thaxton, who previously played Eponine and Enjolras). This stylistic choice is often very effective; there are certainly large showstopper numbers that are grandiose enough to capture the feeling of going off to war and the heat of battle, but they also employ a lot of sung dialogue in the first act (which lacks major events). I found this to be less effective, and become a little silly – I’m usually a fan of musicals, so it saddens me that, in this production, there are no memorable numbers that’ll leave you humming them days later or adding to any playlists. Only The Brave has songs that are fine in the moment but are really nothing special.
Aside from these moments, the play does have some touching elements that I enjoyed. There’s a strong theme toxic masculinity among the male characters running throughout (which I suppose is a sign of the times), but during the moments where the characters all soften and are open about their fears and doubts about the mission, you find yourself sympathising with them quite quickly. There’s also a rather touching subplot about the friendship of two women in the french resistance, that I felt was one of the strongest elements of the play. This strand of the narrative holds a lot of the better songs, as well as some poignant imagery that draws the biggest gasps from the audience.
Throughout the entire piece, the acting is very strong. I have to give a shout out to the endurance of the actors playing the soldiers who, in some scenes, have to simultaneously act, sing, dance, and do physical training all at once. It’s very impressive, and adds to Only The Brave’s spectacle.
However, thematically, I didn’t find the show very different to other war stories that I’ve seen adapted for the stage. There are some unique elements granted to it, through its genre, but the subject matter is rather run of the mill: sending young boys to die, how horrible it is for those they leave behind, and the difficulties faced by those having to kill each other. These are not bad themes, let me be clear, but they’re not done in any new way here, where the focus is on the spectacle and character.
Only The Brave is a good production which you will undoubtedly enjoy. It’s a bit slow to get started, but it’s a lovely performance which is sure to leave you moved and entertained. It might not bring anything really new to the genre, but if you enjoy World War stories, then you’ll probably have a good time watching this one.
You can watch Only The Brave here.
Words by Mischa Alexander.
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