If there is one area where director Phil Wilmott truly excels, it is in his capacity to take a massive story and present it ‘in miniature’. Nowhere is that skill demanded more than with this famously complicated and massively expensive Home Front musical entertainment by Lionel Bart. Written in the frenzied after-glow of ‘Oliver!’, money was no object when this monster was put together as possibly one of the most lavish stage spectacles London has ever seen – and that includes the great Ivor Novello operettas at Drury Lane, featuring train crashes and sinking ships! Now, in a stripped-down version – though still with one of the biggest casts this pocket-sized venue has so far seen – it masterfully whisks us from one thing to adventure as Luftwaffe bombs fall, enlisted men abscond, and neighbours squabble or fall in love.
The problem Bart has created for his interpreters, however, is that his score is hardly a match for the material. One after another, hackneyed rum-ti-tum ditties trot out of the mouths of the characters that populate his wartime vision of Petticoat Lane (and environs). While the aim may be to show the up-beat optimism and resilience of these Londoners, the actual effect is to make them appear shallow and trivial. He is on surer ground when lovingly fashioning convincing pastiches of 1940s ballads: ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is a perfectly formed Vera Lynn-type number, indeed sung by an actress who has to impersonate the forces’ sweetheart; however, with each reprise, it becomes progressively less impressive and leaves one wondering why Bart – who had genius – shows so little of his talent in this score.
There is only one moment, in fact, when he can be said to be trusting his artistry – his art – and writing something that is really up to the mark. For the central character – a die-hard East End Jewish matriarch, Mrs Blitztein – he created for this show a really remarkable soliloquy, ‘So Tell Me’, which is the only number in the entire evening that does not give its self away and let you know where it’s going long before it even gets moving. This number is the proof that Bart could – if he chose – do better. His tragedy was that he decided not to, and perhaps that led to his great sense of disappointment and failure that dogged his lonely, forgotten later life?
It’s impossible to say. Nonetheless, when you hear this, it is hard not to think of him in the same breath as – if not Rodgers and Hammerstein – at least Harold Rome, the American Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and other great Broadway story-tellers-in-song. If the rest of the score were on the same level as that number, this would be one of the greatest British musicals ever written.
Sadly, it is not. The book is a plod from one well-known incident to another. Lacking the genuine vivacity of works like ‘Happy As A Sandbag’, this musicalised abbreviation of the Second World War relies on effortful Cock-er-ney jollity to get us through. MD Rosa Lennox keeps the band – and actor-musicians – busy; choreographer Daniel Maguire struggles a bit to find the right language for some pretty weirdly positioned dance breaks (he is at his best in some fine ensembles, and a terrific solo for blowsy ambulance driver Elsie: an energetic Beaux Harris, making a mark with that routine). Reuben Speed’s multi-purpose set (being used for the whole 3-play cycle of the Wilmott Company at this address) works brilliantly in creating umpteen different settings, and Penn O’Gara makes a little budget go a long way with the realistically drab and shapeless costuming; Harvey Nowak-Green’s lighting is winningly alive to each moment and Ralph Warman weaves in some additional sounds (the cast are not amplified).
But, it is in the massive, central performance of Mrs B that the show stands or falls. Wisely, Wilmott has cast an expert trouper in the role, and in Jessica Martin finds a superlative brain as well as musical theatre talent, skill and nouse to encompass this magnificent part. How many musicals have a middle-aged Jewish woman – not especially romantically entangled with anyone – in the lead? Exactly. The genius of Martin’s delivery is to convince you that the sometimes trite and clumsy book is a peach: it does give her quite an emotional journey, as a mother and widow, to travel, and she is an actress who knows how to make that journey feel real. Hats off to the rest of the cast, though, who have much less support from the script in making it through some pretty melodramatic twists and turns.
And overall? For Bart completists this is necessary viewing; for fans of his successful musical it is an interesting foray into something completely different; and for everyone else, it’s a lively history lesson with occasional magical moments. Not produced professionally for the past 20 years, it remains to be seen how long audiences will have to wait before they get another chance to see it.
Writes book, music and lyrics of new musicals. Currently completing, ‘Generation Rent’, a contemporary college-reunion comedy. New project: ‘Kate The Great’, set in the City. Previous productions with: Iris Theatre; LOST Theatre; So-and-So’s Arts Club; Chichester Festival Theatre (National Theatre Connections); Courtyard Theatre; Arc Theatre, Trowbridge; Harlequin Theatre, Redhill. Also for Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, National Youth Theatre.