‘Struggles to rise above the pastiche’: MISS NIGHTINGALE – Hippodrome

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Hippodrome, London – until 6 May 2018

It’s always a buzz when London gets a new theatre space. Now, diagonally opposite across Leicester Square there are two, each coincidentally producing an actor-musician wartime show. One is amazing, the other still needs work.

At the Empire Cinema Haymarket, its biggest auditorium has been converted back to a theatre for Emma Rice’s smartly reinterpreted romantic Noël Coward weepie Brief Encounter. You could not have a better model for an original treatment of clandestine love interlaced with 1940s cabaret songs.

At the Hippodrome Casino, in an unusual move from cabaret to a six-week run of a staged musical, Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale comes up for air for at least the third time after taking the plunge at the King’s Head and The Vaults. Frankly, it’s still gasping, and all the more breathless for not learning from productions like Brief Encounter.

Although Bugg is to be congratulated in writing an original musical, not an adaptation of someone else’s story or songs, the material still struggles to rise above the predictable or pastiche. Ration books and air raid warnings set the scene, but despite Lauren Chinery’s energetic performance, Maggie Brown/Miss Nightingale herself is a coarse cross between Gracie Fields and Sally Bowles, catapulted to success via an opportunistic dalliance with a wealthy producer the rapidity of which might make a Weinstein blush.

Vengeance and blackmail colour the second half by threatening the illicit liaison between titled and buttoned-up Englishman Frank and his lover George, a Jewish Polish camply gay émigré from Berlin and a walking cliché in the writing, although well-detailed in Matthew Floyd Jones’ sweet and sensitive interpretation. Some of the character’s arch asides are crafted innuendos like ‘I’ve got a seven-inch single you might like’ – but that record format wasn’t invented until 1949. Lazy, Bugg.

The score comprises 18 numbers, 16 of them gentle derivatives of Weimar-styled Kander and Ebb or wartime mockney kneesuppery but two are outstandingly vulgar and, for better or worse, the ones you take away from the show.

The Sausage song will make your toes curl, but if you’ve had a drink or two the sheer filth of ‘I’ve Gone and Trapped My Pussy in the Door’ is so bracingly funny when performed by an actress facing entirely away from the audience you may forget that word wasn’t actually popularised as a euphemism for genitalia until long after the war.

Incidentally, if Miss Nightingale is to travel, she’ll have to get her rabbit caught in the door in Spain, her snail in Switzerland, or her bear in Germany. The things you learn.

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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he wrote mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites including Londonist and The Pink Paper. He blogged independently at www.johnnyfox.london. He passed away, after a long battle with cancer, in May 2020.

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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he wrote mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites including Londonist and The Pink Paper. He blogged independently at www.johnnyfox.london. He passed away, after a long battle with cancer, in May 2020.

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