I know, I don’t do much of these, but I went to see this new musical at the weekend and thought I’d give this a quick go.
The musical is based around Operation Deadstick; an attempt by D Company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry to secure a bridge in advance of the D-Day landings. The lead character, Capt John Howard, is a maverick officer from a humble background who is mercilessly zealous in preparing his men for battle (he begins their training by beating each one in a boxing match one right after the other). With him is his loyal First Officer and his ‘ordinary bloke’ troops, all eager to do their duty but equally terrified of not coming home. While all this training is going on there is a parallel story taking place in occupied France where a resistance fighter is gathering intelligence about the area, though she is unaware of her role in the larger plan.
As well as this principle narrative there is also the story of the wives of Capt Howard and his First Officer, one of whom has just given birth and the other of whom is heavily pregnant. Both work in the signals department back in England and are the ones to relay messages about the current state of the mission.
There are a lot of good moments of personal reflection and some great laughs to be had as well as something I found very important; a lack of vilification of the German soldiers. Too often the Second World War is seen in (no irony here) black and white. To quote Dr Erskine (of Captain America) ‘People forget the first country the Nazis invaded was their own’. In this we have a British soldier singing about how the driver of a tank he’s ordered to destroy might be a window cleaner like him; a young man who just wants to go home to his girl. Even the title song begins as a duet between the British and German officers (in different locations) singing how ‘Only the Brave Forgive’. I must say I liked that very much – it’s cliche to say it but it does highlight that the real enemy is war itself.
In all I found this to be a good if not quite a great night at the theatre. The performances were excellent and the story interesting, but I found only a couple of the songs themselves to be either catchy or moving, and felt this would probably have done better with the same cast performing it as a play. In my humble opinion a musical theatre song should either be one that’s so much fun you can’t help singing it back in the car on the way home, or so emotionally hard-hitting that you’re weeping in the stalls. Most of the songs here did neither of those things. The performances were strong but about half of the musical numbers seemed to detract from them more than add to them. It may sound like I’m ripping into the music here so I should point out it was far from actively bad. More than once I was smiling in a jolly song or more invested in the story by a serious one, but as a man who was raised on Les Miserables (1985 was a very good year!) I wasn’t as blown away by it as I might have been.
I don’t generally give marks out of ten or stars or whatever when I review things so I’ll sum it up like this; Only the Brave has its faults but it’s a musical well worth seeing, particularly with this current cast whose performances were absolutely excellent.