Interview – Caroline Sheen stars in new British musical Only the Brave

Croline Sheen

Actress and singer Caroline Sheen

CAROLINE SHEEN is soon to appear in Rachel Wagstaff, Matthew Brind and Steve Marmion’s new British musical Only the Brave, premiering at the Wales Millennium Centre from 28 March to 2 April.

Based on the real lives of men and women caught up in the D-Day landings, the show tells the inspirational true story of two couples brought together by war, Captain John Howard (David Thaxton) and his wife Joy (Caroline), and Lieutenant Denham Brotheridge (Neil McDermott) and his wife Maggie (Emilie Fleming).

Caroline was born and brought up in South Wales and is very proud of her Welsh heritage. She made her West End debut as Marty in Grease at the Cambridge Theatre, and later played Sandy in a revival at the Victoria Palace Theatre. She was in the original casts of Mamma Mia! and The Witches of Eastwick and other West End roles include Eponine and Fantine in Les Misérables and Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She played the title role in the UK and US tours of Mary Poppins. Most recently, she appeared in Putting It Together (St James Theatre) and played Alaura/Carla in City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse.

Other roles include: Philia in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and Susan Walker in Once in a Lifetime (both at the National Theatre) and Clara Johnson in the European premiere of The Light in the Piazza (Leicester Curve).

Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland chatted to Caroline during rehearsals…

When did you first get approached about Only the Brave?

It was October time last year when the team came to me and David [actor David Thaxton, playing Caroline’s husband in the show]. David and I have done a couple of things for the Wales Millennium Centre – we were both in the very first public performance there – but this is the first time we have worked in a show together (we missed each other in Les Misérables!). It’s nice because we’re already mates, so there’s no awkwardness.

Caroline Sheen & David Thaxton 1 credit Shaun Webb

Caroline Sheen and David Thaxton in Only the Brave at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Picture: Shaun Webb

Had you heard of the show beforehand?

I’d seen a very early concert version of the piece, but I think two of the writers weren’t even onboard then. I just remember how good the music by Matt [Matthew Brind] was. I think they’ve really tinkered with the story now, it’s nowhere near the same as the concert.

In fact what they’ve done now is very clever of them. Some people might think ‘why would you write a musical about the Second World War?’, but the writers have come at it from such a realistic standpoint. It’s based on a true story about a mission on D-Day, about the men who go away and the women who stay home, they’re both fighting in their own ways.

It’s about two married couples, so there’s no falling in love subplot. I guess the romance is between the two women becoming friends and the two men bonding. It’s a story of a true love that is tested when people are split up in war-time.

How have you found it identifying with your character?

It has made me think back to when I toured America for a year in Mary Poppins. I had to say goodbye to my husband [actor Michael Jibson] at an airport in America and we literally drowned the place in tears. And I think now that was just him going home, that wasn’t him or I going to war, no one was frightened for their lives. Yet in the 1940s you weren’t able to show that emotion, it wasn’t the done thing, it was very stiff upper lip – ‘off you go and do your duty’. It’s very interesting getting our heads around that very different time, the different social morals of that era as well.

We’re all really getting into it. Lots of us are reading books about the period, everyone’s really doing their research and wanting to do this incredible story justice. I thought I was going to be the only one turning up on the first day with a book, but we’re all really bonding over the story.

Do you think Only the Brave has a future beyond its short run in Cardiff?

I think it needs to be on a stage in London, our lyricist – who is also our director – has an amazing vision for the show. I’m telling all my friends who love theatre that they should see it twice, it’s just beautiful. I just have a lot of faith in this piece, I think it definitely needs to be seen by a larger audience beyond its week in Cardiff.

(clockwise from top left) Emilie Fleming, Neil McDermott, David Thaxton and Caroline Sheen lead the cast of Only the Brave at the Wales Millennium Centre

(clockwise from top left) Emilie Fleming, Neil McDermott, David Thaxton and Caroline Sheen lead the cast of Only the Brave

It’s a bit like what they’ve done with Mrs Henderson Presents, I guess. I definitely think it’s worth doing because the audience tell you so much. This run will test if the show can go in front of a West End audience, and hopefully we will pass that text.

Were you attracted to the project because it was a new musical?

It’s really exciting to work on something so new and so fresh and it’s really, really good. Sometimes you take on a new piece and you’re not sure how it’s going to work out, but we’re all counting how many times we get goosebumps every day.

I’m a big supporter of new musical theatre anyway, I want to encourage new writing, and there doesn’t always seem like there is massive support for young writers. People are still calling Stiles and Drewe new writers! They’re brilliant of course, but they did have a lot of support from Cameron Mackintosh which gave them a platform. That was fantastic and well deserved, but I don’t know the last writers that had that kind of support in the UK.

An added pull must be that the musical is being produced in Wales and this new production will be the Millennium Centre’s first production of a full-scale, original musical…

It’s a real privilege and it’s very special for me – I’m a very proud Welsh girl. I haven’t actually worked in Wales that often, just one episode of Torchwood and the odd concert here and there. I’ve never done any theatre in Wales, so this is the first time I will have acted onstage there since I was at school doing The Boyfriend and Charlie Girl, and doing amdram in my local theatre.

I also think it’s exciting that the Millennium Centre is standing on its own two feet and putting on its own show for the first time on the main stage. The venue is an amazing facility and such an incredible space.

You have been in the original casts of musicals before, is it something you relish?

I was really lucky when I first started working, I did quite a lot of original casts. I loved it – you got to talk to the writers, to start shaping things, create characters, to learn from an audience.


Caroline Sheen as Mary Poppins

Part of me is worried about the future of musical theatre, there seems to be so much more investment in new writing in the US. I see new musicals being supported by some schemes and a number of Fringe and regional venues, but I wish more of the people with big money supported the work or at least made the effort to go along and see some of the shows. If writers aren’t shown some interest or given support, there’s the danger they will stop doing the work.

You supported new writing in your album Raise the Curtain too…

I tried to include new music that I believe people will ultimately listen to like we have listened to Rodgers and Hammerstein up to now. There is a lot of American and British new writing on there, which I’m really proud of. Some of the writers have gone on to do fabulous things – like Grant Holding (One Man Two Guvnors). There’s even a cut song from The Go-Between which is arriving in the West End soon.

I read that your great great grandmother was a lion tamer. Is that true?

That’s quite a story and a true one! Our three-year-old daughter Flora is named after my lovely great aunt. Her mum and my dad’s nana’s mum was a lion tamer. When my nana died my dad found a picture of Auntie Flora aged about two or three and she’s got three lion cubs in her lap! What’s really freaky is that she’s the spitting image of me in that photograph, and now that young Flora’s here, she is the spitting image of her.

I really want to find more out about it, I’m desperate for my big cousin [actor Michael Sheen] to take part in the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?

Finally, are there any particular musical theatre roles you have got your eye on?

There’s one character in one famous musical [The King and I], and that show is due to come over from Broadway next year, with its leading lady. But if there ended up being a vacancy… then that be would be a dream.

Only the Brave runs at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff from 28 March to 2 April.

* Only the Brave will be directed by Steve Marmion, artistic director of London’s Soho Theatre. With a book by Rachel Wagstaff, music by Matthew Brind and lyrics by Steve Marmion, Only the Brave is produced by Wales Millennium Centre, Soho Theatre, Daniel Sparrow Productions and Birdsong Productions.


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