Miss Nightingale – June 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Matthew Bugg

Directed by Peter Rowe

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 6th June 2013

This was an enjoyable musical burlesque, a bit like Funny Girl does Cabaret in WWII London. A young woman, Maggie Brown, was trying to make it as a singer while working during the day. Her composer friend George was a Jew who fled Germany before the Nazis made it impossible to get out. He was also gay and earning a bit on the side as a rent boy. One close encounter with a posh chap turned into a close encounter with a policeman, as George allowed himself to be caught to save the other man’s reputation. This good deed was returned later, when the posh chap, Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe, turned out to be the owner of a new nightclub who was looking for talent to entertain his discerning clientele. Maggie and George were a perfect fit, and once Frank got over his concern that George was trying to blackmail him, the three of them developed a mutually beneficial relationship.

With Maggie’s boyfriend cum manager, Tom Fuller, getting the heave-ho shortly after his top act got a lucrative job, there was potential for trouble, and when Tom discovered George and Frank’s sexual relationship, he started to blackmail Frank. With Maggie’s brother also being killed in action, things didn’t look good for a happy ending but her plucky spirit finally kicked in, and with some choice words to her good-for-nothing ex, she turned herself into a burlesque queen, finishing the show with a raunchy striptease and song.

The rest of the music led up to that final number very well; most of the nightclub songs were in the cheeky seaside postcard vein – Stand Up And Be Counted, Let Me Play On Your Pipe and The Pussy Song, for example. Amber Topaz performed them very well, and since she is a burlesque performer in real life the final transition of her character was easy to do. If anything, the rest of her performance was a bit underpowered, with a relatively flat delivery and lack of sparkle which wasn’t apparent once the gloves (and most of her other clothes) came off. I wasn’t sure if her part was underwritten or if she just wasn’t getting as much out of it as some other singers and actresses can; Samantha Spiro sprang to mind from her performance in Funny Girl.

There was also a weakness in the writing, in that the plot took a long time to set up and the blackmail aspect didn’t arise till the end of the first half. This meant that the first half was basically a lot of exposition in short scenes, and while I liked the characters, there wasn’t a lot of tension and my interest began to flag. Given how much they need to establish I’m not sure how else it could be done, but it would be helpful if the first half could be tightened up in some way. Also, the focus wasn’t as clearly defined as I would have liked. The title character had a simple trajectory from shop girl to cabaret and then burlesque star with only the irritating ex-manager and the death of her brother to contend with. The two characters who took up most of the dramatic action were the lovers, George and Frank, and this was where the main interest lay most of the time. This splitting of the plotlines undermined the play a bit, although the marriage device was well used and helped to tie the two parts together: in order to cover his sexuality, Frank asked Maggie to marry him and the ins and outs of that scenario drove a lot of the second half, making it more interesting than the first.

The set was nicely simple. A small stage was set up centre back with black curtains, and Miss Nightingale gave most of her performances on it or in the space in front. The piano was to the right along with the woodwind section, while the drums and brass were to the left. Far left was a dressing table and washstand and they brought a folding screen across to create the dressing room area as needed, while a bed on the right hand side of the stage was joined by a table and chairs to represent Maggie and George’s flat. The club had some tables and chairs as well, and the changes were all slick and smooth – no screens falling over this time.

Despite my reservations we did enjoy ourselves, and there’s no doubting the talent of the cast. Matthew Bugg, the writer and musical director, also played piano and one small part. Ilan Goodman played George and also the clarinet, while Frank was played by Tomm Coles, who doubled as the saxophonist. Adam Langstaff played the drums and percussion when he wasn’t annoying everyone as the ex-agent Harry, and Tobias Oliver played the other parts such as Waiter as well as helping out with the percussion. Henry Goodman also helped out as the voice of the radio announcer, and they certainly captured the atmosphere of wartime London. We wish them well on the rest of their tour.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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