The Vaults Theatre,
Wednesday 5th April 2017
50, 000 Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, as the saying has it. And neither, one would like to think, can 50, 000 Brits. That’s how many have already been to see this show, since it rapidly grew from a chamber-sized three-hander in 2011, through a handful of national tours, into the romp for six actor-musicians that has been doing good business in venues of all shapes and sizes the length and breadth of the country since. And now London gets its chance to see the latest version of this wartime yarn of backstage life among ‘unconventional’ variety folk.
Treading similar terrain as the recently seen ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’, it has an infectious score, well-written dialogue, and a story that revolves around more than one centre of gravity. Where ‘Mrs H’ had three distinctly different narratives to tell, this show has two. The first is the nursing-to-ENSA rise of the eponymous heroine, Maggie (soon to be given the stage name that appears on the programme). Tamar Broadbent is the latest in a long line of actresses to take this role, and her background in stand-up comedy, and the ability to deliver fresh, witty, stylish new songs (she herself is an extremely accomplished writer) give her considerable power in the part. Alongside her trajectory, we also proceed through the bumpy romance of the toffy-nosed owner of the club, dashingly moustachioed Sir Frank Worthington-Blyth (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) and his inamorato, gay Jewish refugee songwriter-MD, George (Conor O’Kane), who is all arched eyebrows and inflamed passionate survival instincts, switching between devastating one-liners [GEORGE: I was beaten by the police. FRANK: Did they charge you? GEORGE: No, it was free.], Liza Minnelli-style Berlin cabaret decadence, rousing political consciousness-raising and heartfelt tenderness (something he shares, rather touchingly, with Frank).
The odd couple are first thrown together in a furtive spot of blackout cruising. Secrecy is the name of their game, inviting the inevitable intrusion of blackmail. This counterpoints the ostentatious sauciness of Miss Nightingale’s act, which is full of the double-entendres that used to get Benny Hill in trouble with feminists but which are now – apparently – acceptable again. Broadbent has a ball with these numbers, and they are enormous fun. Each musical moment different from another, each character having space to breathe their own air, voice their own feelings and explore their own moods.
Around the interesting trio at the centre of the story cluster the already married spiv black marketeer boyfriend to the singing nurse (Niall Kerrigan’s earthy, driven Tom), her racily mouthed squaddie brother (played with much gusto and poise by the author), and the permanent source of calm in this maelstrom of emotion and entangled plot-lines, the club’s stage manager Clifford (taken, along with many other – similarly soothing – parts by the writer director’s real life partner, Tobias Oliver).
All this is acted out on Carla Goodman’s very flexible staging concept (expanding or contracting to fill any number of wildly differently shaped performance spaces), and the characters are handsomely, even flashily dressed, all in keeping with their milieu and period. Even the programme is produced on wartime standard brown paper (which – deliciously – comes accompanied by a precious bar of wartime chocolate), and the bar is littered with copies of the illustrated Post (c.1942).
That so much is achieved with such comparatively slender means in one of the compelling reasons to go and see this show. That it has all been written – including the band and vocal arrangements – and directed by (and, as remarked, also features in a prominent role) one person, the hugely talented Matthew Bugg, is extraordinary. That it should also be his first full-length work and first musical is nothing short of miraculous. Joe Harmston has come in for this run as ‘Creative Consultant’, but he is the first to draw attention to the staggering achievement Bugg has pulled off. With a beginning like this, what on earth might he be capable of next?
This is not to say that the show might not become tighter, more logical, clearer, more shapely, more animated, were it to receive the attentions of at least one other pair of eyes – those of a dramaturg, a choreographer, another director, or perhaps a combination of all these. Things that work very well on tour can look very, very different when placed alongside the wonders of theatrical magic that London boasts in abundance. There are several issues here possibly needing attention: the twin stories of Maggie and Frank-George too often seem to pull in opposite, or at least contrary directions; some dialogue lingers too long over plot points the audience has long since grasped; meanwhile, other developments are hurried along when we would cheerfully take longer to savour them, joining, rather than just witnessing, the journey the characters are on. Furthermore, Callum Macdonald’s lighting is getting better but needs quite a bit of sharpening up, and Drew Baumohl’s sound sometimes struggles to get the balance right.
But let’s not run before we can walk, and this show manages its nearly three hours’ running time with great confidence and self-possession (although, ladies, it’s quite a long sit to the interval, and there is but one very little loo to share amongst you!). Bugg is a great new talent, and in the partnership with Oliver he is doing something exciting and bold and fun. They’ve got so far under their own steam. Maybe an enterprising producer, or three, will take an interest in them and develop their careers further. The potential is definitely there.
Until 20 May
Photos: Robert Workman