Hippodrome, London – until 6 May 2018
It’s WW2 themed. Gas masks, posters, programmes in an ARP fire-bucket and rude songs to cheer the troops on leave and show Hitler that Britain can take it. Our show is upstairs while below on the broad casino floor black-tie gamblers – the real 2018 ones at the Hippodrome, serving unknowingly as atmospheric decor – rake the chips and spin the wheels as in frenzied semi-legal blackout London dive. For Matthew Bugg – creator, director, producer of this spirited musical – has found the ideal glam-louche venue for his tale of cabaret and illicit love. I always knew it would work even better at tables with drinks on them.
I feel inappropriately maternal, or auntly, about this show because I welcomed it first in 2011 at the King’s Head, writing that: “Its theatrical roots spread from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret to new burlesque, with a dash of Design for Living, touches of Rattigan angst and echoes of many a nightclubby, Blitzy, wartime-blackout romance of gin, gents and garter belts.”
It was only 90 minutes then, with Ilan Goodman as the male lead; later I caught it on tour in Ipswich, all-grown-up and full length, and here it is again: tweaked and polished with a group of six versatile actor-musicians including the author himself and a hero who can play the kazoo and concertina simultaneously while his character’s heart is breaking.
Lauren Chinery brings to the title role of Maggie, the Lancashire nurse breaking into cabaret by night, a tough sturdiness which does fishnet glamour or comedy character songs with equal relish, but gives the emotional, heartfelt numbers a real pindrop quietness. When she reads a telegram about her soldier brother and sings: “They promised there’d be bluebirds,” it is a strong, sudden mood-changer.
For this is the balance the show has to strike, between Bugg’s gorgeous pastiche ,comic-daring patter songs and the emotional engine of a plot set against the serious miseries and social clashes of wartime. Maggie took into her lodgings George the Polish-Jewish exile , who now writes songs to launch her night job and falls in love with Sir Frank, the war hero and club impresario . This, remember, at a time when homosexuals were illogically arrested as presumed spies, “the enemy within” ; when fleeing into a sham marriage with a girl pregnant by a caddish blackmailing black-marketeer might be a way out of trouble. A time when George, as a gay Jew who fled Berlin, can say with ironic bitterness of gay arrests “This is how it begins…I have seen it”.
The show works a treat here, assisted by the Hippodrome ’s own echoes of Judy Garland . I still think Bugg’s first half is hampered by slowing the development of the plot and the tricky three-way relationship by indulging in one too many big cabaret numbers. But hey, we liked the songs for themselves. And there are some very different, seriously plot-developing emotional songs too. Matthew Floyd Jones is a find, perfect casting as a waspish, pallidly troubled, camp and reckless George. He is homesick for love and for Weimar freedoms: his Meine Liebe Berlin (“fount of original sin..”) is unbeatable. Oliver Mawdsley’s Frank catches the awkward public-school-toff dread of scandal and exposure, and grows convincingly through cowardice to courage. Both acts have tremendous, complex trios as the three of them express their unachievable crossed desires. And Chinery’s ability to change costume at lightning speed and storm through rude character sons about sausages, joysticks etc brings the house down. Welcome to Meine Liebe Hippodrome. Not bad prices, either.