I’ve always been a bit of a creature of habit when it comes to my theatregoing; I latch on to particular shows and enjoy returning to them time and again and how the nuances of a character can always grow and develop depending on the choices each actor makes. The words might be the same, but each time, for me a show always feels slightly different; I often pick up on things I hadn’t noticed or paid much attention to previously and find myself looking forward to seeing how particular scenes are played from visit to visit. I love being able to go to Stage Door after a show, especially when particular cast members ‘know’ me from my regular attendance; it means a lot to me to tell them in person how much I enjoyed their performances, and know that they appreciate the support I give them, and knowing this makes me all the more inclined to return repeatedly as well. I guess the other major factor in my show going diary is that my circumstances mean I can’t go to London as much as I would like, so when I do get there, I choose more often than not to go with the ‘safe’ familiar option as I know I’ll enjoy it and it makes me feel better about the travelling expense from home here in Bristol.
I will always have my ‘go to’ shows, but am (very slowly, admittedly) learning to challenge myself into seeing things I wouldn’t normally see, and often feel very sad for the fact that the theatre scene today seems to be lacking in new work, or at least work that isn’t based on something already done on film; it generally seems to scare both the audiences and producers alike. I understand why, I’m not at all a font of knowledge on the mechanics of getting a production to the stage, but I do know that it is vastly expensive, so in that way I can understand why it might be better to go with a project that’s familiar and perhaps more likely to get people in the doors to watch. By that same token, I also know that new work and talent, onstage and off is the lifeblood of the theatre, so it’s a tricky one to balance, but it’s important to try; as sometimes, just sometimes, taking a punt as an audience member can pay off beautifully.
Earlier this month, I travelled to Cardiff for the first time since I graduated from my Master’s degree, for my third visit to the beautiful Wales Millennium Centre. In my experiences of theatre going, this is one of my favourite venues as the wheelchair spaces are right up near the front of stalls, so immediately I find it easier to establish a stronger emotional connection to what I’m watching, which for a piece like we were there to watch, was part of its strength and magic.
For the first time in the venue’s history, it played host to its first in house musical, produced by the team behind Birdsong Productions, with a book by Rachel Wagstaff, music by Matthew Brind, and direction and lyrics by Steve Marmion. Alternating between Britain and Normandy in 1944 and inspired by true events, Only The Brave follows Captain John Howard and his platoon of men who were chosen to lead ‘Operation Deadstick’ and capture the Benouville Bridge (now known as Pegasus Bridge) and thereby play an integral role in the effectiveness of the D Day Landings,which changed the tide of the Second World War, and the women they leave behind. Elsewhere, a young woman named Isabelle decides to take a stand and join the French Resistance, feeding German intelligence she gains while working as a waitress in the Café Gondrée to the British Forces in tandem with local aristocrat Madame Lea Vion, who also helped run the local hospital. At times, yes the team chose to combine characters and abridge and simplify events, but throughout I got a sense of the strength and will of wanting to do the story of these men and women and their bravery justice, and do so with utmost care and respect. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to tell a story like this, especially in the form of a musical, and it’s a bravery I salute and support wholeheartedly: the story is an integral part of our history, and people should know it.
The production design is one of the things that struck me most, especially in terms of the Set Design & Video and Projection. Michael Vale’s set was minimalist, the lynch pin being a set of metal frames and stairs that the cast could use like a playground, and essentially become whatever your imagination lets it. All the while, these are complimented by Dick Straker’s clever and striking projections that included barbed wire, a tank looming over the troops, the stark outline of the Benouville Bridge, and backdrops of for the offices where the women work back at home with the information that they’re sent, and the streets of Paris as Isabelle sings. It did mean that we are challenged with where to focus our attention as sometimes things happen onstage simultaneously ‘in’ these two different parts of the world, and at times I panicked and missed little details because I was focusing on one over another, but I appreciated what they were trying to do; it reinforced my belief that a ‘less is more approach’ can truly create a wonderful impact in terms of storytelling and that becomes the driving force, instead of putting every single prop in there and being fed everything.
The lighting and sound design (by Malcolm Rippeth and Chris Full, respectively) again is clever; in particular getting its moment of unbridled glory as it opens the second act with an assault on our eyes and ears as we are thrown headlong into the horror of war.
Musically, there are some wonderful moments and stunning harmonies, even if sometimes I found some of the clarity of the lyrics got lost in the sheer volume and intensity of the ensemble’s fantastic singing. I felt the score’s real power and punch lay in the male ensemble numbers, my particular favourites being Ready for Anything, the titular song, and Band of Brothers. The talented male cast: David Thaxton, Neil McDermott, Karl Queensborough, Thomas Aldridge, Max Bowden, Gwydion Rhys, Steffan Lloyd-Evans and David Albury, powered their way through Alastair David’s gritty testosterone fuelled choreography, and made the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie share in the shadow of their mission shine through.
That’s not to say the women don’t have some powerful moments song wise, on the contrary moments like Regret and Sympathy really tugged at my heartstrings and made me tear up. The score itself is one of the most complex I think I’ve ever heard, there’s a lot going on in the arrangements, and each cast member tackles it with remarkable ease and commitment to the storytelling: special mentions to Nikki Mae as Isabelle who particularly proved herself as a new face to watch out for in future with a beautiful rendition of Montmarte a Minuit avec Maman, and Thomas Aldridge, whose moment to really shine as he asks, What The Hell Am I Doing? gave me ridiculous goosebumps. The thing I liked most about the writing and direction is the fact that both take pains to ensure you can invest in each character equally, a feat that is often difficult to achieve. I felt, by the time I left the theatre, that I knew each of these incredible men and women and their bravery a little, and was honoured and humbled by hearing their story brought to life by a wonderfully talented group of actors.
I spent the entirety of whenever David Thaxton sang cursing myself for not seeing him in a musical prior to this one. His vocal blew me away with its power and ferocity, with Captain Howard commanding not only the platoon, but my attention. He has some wonderful moments of warmth, when with his wife Joy and when he begins to open up to his platoon and show them more mutual respect, and it’s a pleasure to watch his portrayal develop as the show goes on.
Neil McDermott was the biggest surprise for me, having only been familiar with his television work. He brought a real swagger and easy, likeable charm to Lieutenant Denham Brotheridge. He shares touching chemistry with Emilie Fleming, who shone as his wife Maggie. This was my first opportunity to hear Emilie sing live, and I loved her soaring vocal: it filled the space utterly and was so crystal clear and tender.
Caroline Sheen continues to remind me why she is among my favourite leading ladies in her turn as Joy Howard. She always brings a striking sense of inner strength to the women I see her play that I find so exciting and refreshing and as ever, her vocal makes me pine for the fact I haven’t a singing voice like hers!
The sheer nature of the theatrical beast means that sometimes shows fall by the wayside and don’t get the life they deserve or the kind of longevity certain established shows have. In that way, because I take a chance, I feel very privileged to have witnessed their magic when others miss out. I hope Only The Brave gets a second chance at life, it tells a story that I think people need to hear, and does so while celebrating courage, friendship and hope; a combination I believe has great potential for future success.