The Vaults, London – until 20 May 2017
Miss Nightingale storms the stage to start the show just as it ends – with energy, enthusiasm and a patriotic desire to support the troops. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenes are often where Matthew Bugg loses his way slightly on the show, releasing his otherwise tightly held grip and clear conceptual realisation in favour of getting the audience on their feet, involved and dancing.
These numbers fall flat and end up as slapdash, a bit shoddy and overdone. The best parts of Miss Nightingale are those that stay simple, heartfelt and emotional, stripped back and laid bare. Thankfully these nuggets of gold far outweigh their superficial counterparts in a musical that has real promise and foresight, a refreshing take on a forbidden love story.
It’s 1942, height of the Blitz, and London is desperate to keep morale alive in any way possible. Underground cabaret clubs keep their residents intoxicated and in high spirits by shady dealings with suppliers; the public jump on a celebrity scandal like a lifeline, a vestige of the past in such an austere environment; illicit liaisons are made in the dead of the night, hoping against hope that the crime of being a homosexual is not uncovered, especially for those in social standing.
Such is the case for Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead), who eventually falls in love after such an encounter with Polish Jew immigrant Jurek ‘George’ Nowodny (Conor O’Kane). Fortunately, the relationship can take shelter indoors, under the convenient pretence of George acting as the creative tour de force behind Maggie Brown (Broadbent), stage name Miss Nightingale. A Northern born, grounded nurse with pluck and gumption, Maggie epitomises the “We Can Do It!” mentality that pervaded British consciousness throughout the bombings. Love blossoms as well-to-do Frank succumbs to his love for George amidst his abject fear of being discovered by Maggie’s ex-boyfriend Tom (Niall Kerrigan). Can such a motley trio hope to have a happy ending?
Bugg draws inspiration from great pieces of the time, fusing a vocal harmony boogie-woogie style, inspired by The Andrews Sisters and found in songs like “It’s Easier To Go Off To War”, with simple, honest melodies that speak for themselves – “Waiting” and “Mister Nightingale” epitomise the beauty that emerges through this stripped back approach. But there are nods to other inspirational themes from the era too; the 1930s underground Berlin cabaret scene is prevalent in George’s sultry rendition of “Meine Liebe Berlin” as he straddles the chair, leg outstretched in homage of Cabaret’s Sally Bowles. In many ways O’Kane plays the mirror to Sally, the other side of the performing coin who wishes to be able to live as freely as Bowles did. This particular performance is a highlight, O’Kane oozes sensual sex appeal and an avant garde joie de vivre. But even here, as in much of the show, the orchestration doesn’t quite pack the oomph that the music demands.
Bugg’s composition is in no way in doubt – this is a man that has lyrical and compositional talent to spare. Indeed, certain songs work best with a stripped back arrangement; “Mister Nightingale”, complete with its many reprises, puts the focus on the two lovebirds and is elevated by a simple, no frills accompaniment that allows the vocal strength of O’Kane and Coutu-Langmead to take centre stage. Likewise, Broadbent’s delivery of “Bluebird” is made all the more impactful by sparse chords, pure melodies and an exposed delivery. This compositional style complements these singers much more than the upbeat, comedic double entendres of “Let Me Play On Your Pipe” or “The Pussy Song”. Broadbent, despite being renowned for her comic timing and pregnant pauses, seems less comfortable on these numbers, needing more space to eke out all the nuances and produce the laugh out loud overall delivery that she is more than capable of.
Miss Nightingale is a show with tremendous promise, exemplified by the polyphonic genius of its final first half number, “Understudy”, in which each character effortlessly blends their individual songs in a Les Miserables“One Day More” homage that lifts the production into the rafters of truly great writing. Some tweaks and tightening on parts of the orchestration, script and concepts will galvanise this into a show that could easily fill out larger theatres. Ultimately, Miss Nightingale is a show about the madness of the war, the absurdity of certain rules and regulations that were completely commonplace. But the truly refreshing thing about Bugg’s work is that we finally get a musical where the romantic aspect centres around two men without a high kick, sequin or camp jazz hand in sight. Don’t get me wrong, these all have their place, but this production bucks the trend by treating the love between two men with the same seriousness as that of a man and a woman, despite basing it in a time when such romance was illegal. Bliss.