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Only The Brave
Written by Craig Thomson   
Published on Sunday, 17 August 2008

I KNOW IT'S SOMETHING of a cliché to complain about Edinburgh’s inclement August weather, but it really was tipping it down on the afternoon I went to see Only the Brave, a new World War II-era musical premiering at the Fringe.  It was so wet, in fact, that the curtain was held for twenty minutes while musicians battled their way to the venue through the rain.

Speaking of the venue: the University’s largest lecture hall on the George Square campus has been reinvented this year as a musical theatre but, despite its proximity to the bustling Spiegel Garden and the Gilded Balloon/Udderbelly/Pleasance Dome complex at Bristo Square, it feels strangely out-of-the-loop.  Due to limited space in the foyer, the box office (on the George Square level) is a touch cramped and chaotic.  But the downstairs bar (on the Buccleuch Place level) was comfortable enough, with outside seating taking advantage of the building’s unique overhangs to provide shelter from the elements.

I doubt anyone was here to gawp at 1960s architecture – but I also doubt very many were really here to see Only the Brave.  The chief draw was obviously local lad Keith Jack, a reality-TV runner-up, as the front row of weeping teenagers attested.  Jack, who was up for a part in Lord Lloyd-Webber’s dated biblical musical Joseph (and the etc. etc), joins a worthy cast in Only the Brave – which includes another former ‘star’ of reality TV, Niamh Perry.  Where Jack failed to win a place in Joseph, Perry was rejected for the role of Nancy in another mushy West End hit, Oliver.

While I’m not at all familiar with this particular programming genre, I had heard of Jack due to his local connections – and he is obviously a very talented singer, who could have a bright future on the stage.  In fact, the whole ensemble was very good, belting out their numbers with gusto.  Unfortunately, most of the time the songs were either too big for the small theatre, or were drowned out by the 30-piece orchestra (give or take a few players caught by the rain) hidden backstage – a puzzling dichotomy.

But the principal shortcoming of the piece is one that the cast could not overcome: Only the Brave is just a boring musical.  There is no real story to speak of, and what is there is riddled with plot holes.  One particularly baffling line sees the wife of one of the officers wrongly notified of her husband's death, only for him to die a short while later anyway – it seemed to be an excuse to wring one more wistful song out of the female cast members.  I may also have picked up the chronology wrongly, but the action seemed to switch from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the D-Day landings very swiftly, an inexplicable gap of five years.

Regardless of what I say, mind you, I expect this will still draw in the crowds; and I wouldn't be surprised if this were to wind up on the West End, because there's a market for this kind of show, and for this kind of star.  One ashen-faced fourteen-year-old I overheard on the way out said it all: “I haven't cried this much in my whole life.”  Quite.

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