Nicholas Coutu-Langmead, Tamar Broadbent & Conor O'Kane
Conor O'Kane & Matthew Bugg
Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O'Kane
This diverting cabaret-style musical is a story of gay love and wartime showbiz
A bunker-like auditorium in The Vaults – the multi-performance space created out of the network of tunnels under Waterloo Station – is an atmospherically subterranean location for this Blitz-set new musical. It’s steeped in an almost reverent nostalgia for the music hall, with the cast playing instruments as well as characters.
Writer and director Matthew Bugg’s production is awash with charm, as it dips into the culture of wartime musical revue. From ‘Let Me Play on Your Pipe’ to ‘The Sausage Song’, the tunes have an authentic sense of innocent cheek. Their playful innuendoes are what ‘saucy’ was coined for.
The effect is completed by designer Carla Goodman’s lightbulb-ringed proscenium arch, through which the titular Miss Nightingale – the stage name of no-nonsense Northerner Maggie Brown – entertains, while her closeted manager, Frank, and her best friend, George, try to keep their relationship under wraps.
Conor O’Kane relishes every eye-roll as Jewish-Polish immigrant, George, and Nicholas Coutu-Langmead stiffens his upper lip admirably as posh boy Frank. Tamar Broadbent, meanwhile, gives Maggie grit and vulnerability, while beautifully pitching her showstoppers.
But the show’s wholesale buying into a bygone era also results in a soft-focus, old-fashioned feel, flattening out the dramatic stakes of George’s tragic backstory and the edginess of the first song, ‘Cruising’. The murmuring lyrics and languorous awakening of instruments, pulsing in time to the men’s first encounter, leads only to chaste kisses.
Bugg (who clearly knows his history) packs his script with grim background details, such as the mass arrests of gay men as ‘enemy spies’, but in tone and temperament, his characters feel like they’re from a ’40s film. They might do and say things uncensored, but a working-class guy is still the blackmailer.
‘Miss Nightingale’ began life a few years ago as a chamber piece and there’s a sense of bloating now, of a few too many songs that – while buckets of fun – don’t add much to the plot. There are times when it seems caught between the story it’s telling and being an actual music hall revue.
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