“Surely this is happening too fast,” sings Keith Jack’s soldier character Charlie during Only the Brave. And, while he’s referring to his battlefield romance with Niamh Perry’s French nurse Belle, it’s an apt observation of the musical itself.
At just 75 minutes without an interval, Steve Marmion’s world premiere production has been cut down to Edinburgh Fringe-friendly size. But its multiple plotlines, inspired by real lives and love stories from the Second World War, need far more time than this to reach full power – at least another hour – and, without it, are hastily sped through.
The piece revolves around a company of British infantrymen, following their wartime action from the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk to 1944 when, reassembled out of sense of duty, they struggle to the death to defend a bridge. Of the story’s romances – Jack and Perry’s cross-border one, and the marriage of the company’s captain John – only the latter is explained here in depth. A spy sub-plot involving Belle and a smitten Nazi is too sketchy to make any impact – and the decision to forego appropriate accents makes it even more confusing.
More central than any romance, though, is the relationships between the men: the boyhood friendship between Charlie and Gareth Richards’ Will, the paternalism of Gerald Bentall’s captain and his fellow officer, played by Tom Solomon, and the camaraderie and unswerving loyalty of the entire company.
“If you’re willing to fight and die for your brothers, step forward,” barks the captain as a line of soldiers put feet out in unison and launch into the rousing anthem “Band of Brothers”, which borrows lines wholesale from Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Composer Matthew Brind conceived Only the Brave after visiting the cemeteries of northern France with his war veteran grandfather, and he’s succeeded in creating a soaring score that pays tribute to the heroism of those who fought in a way that even we successive generations, untouched by war, can appreciate. The resulting musical – with lyrics by Brind and Stephen Coleman and book by Coleman and Rachel Wagstaff – is a combination of Spielberg and Boublil and Schonberg, Saving Private Ryan meets Les Miz.
It’s truly stirring stuff and, once the book is expanded, will, I’m sure, deliver on its already impressive promise. For now, it’s still deeply moving and imminently watchable, thanks also to high production values and a talented cast, of whom Tom Solomon and Cassidy Janson are in particularly fine voice.
Finally, for the record, reality TV fans will also be glad to hear that Keith Jack (of Any Dream Will Do fame) and Niamh Perry (I’d Do Anything) also acquit themselves well, with strong singing if somewhat tentative acting performances. We’ll be seeing more of both of them, no doubt.