NIGHTCLUBS AND NIGHTINGALES – BLACKMAIL IN THE BLITZ
It is endearing that this musical’s tour should coincide with the first same-sex marriages: it is built round a gay love affair in the dark pre-Wolfenden days, the wartime years when homosexual men were prosecuted and called “The enemy within”, potential blackmail victims and spies. The creation of Matthew Bugg, directed by Peter Rowe of the New Wolsey, it is set in 1942 and follows the tangled lives of George – a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer – and his friend Maggie, a Lancashire nurse and singer trying to break in to London clubs.
George (Harry Waller) wants to recreate the pre-war Berlin cabaret scene he loved; Maggie (Jill Cardo) has a gift for comedy and character songs: Bugg pastiches these rather brilliantly as she changes costume from Dietrich to Rosie the Riveter, a drag Noel Coward or airman. Or, in a particularly “naughty” number a headscarfed wife sneaking off with the butcher because “You’ve gotta get your sausage where you can!”. They are backed by Sir Frank, an affluent invalided war-hero, to perform at his club; he and George fall in love and are threatened by blackmail. Panicked, Sir Frank proposes to Maggie. In that complex, conflicted part Tomm Coles is particularly fine.
I went in a spirit of curiosity: three years ago at the King’s Head I hailed Bugg’s 90-minute musical as a blend of “The Kander/Ebb Cabaret and 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.” I concluded, in that patronizing criticky way to which we sometimes succumb, “This show could grow”. Now, after bouncing off the small Leicester Square theatre last year it turns up recast, full-length and re-plotted as a touring co-production from Mr Bugg Presents and the New Wolsey (with backing and a nice programme note from the Naional Fairground Archive).
The cast are all actor-musicians, picking up saxophone, trumpet and clarinet with admirable insouciance and breath control even in the middle of a dance; Bugg’s pastiche songs are wonderful, and some of the dramatic numbers effective – notably the sad secret cruising of the gay men in the blackout, and the trios and duets of lovers at cross-purposes. It has grown well – though the first act could do with a trim: there are rather too many musical numbers before the plot begins to darken satisfactorily.
And there is real force in the fact, too easily forgotten, that while fighting Nazi persecution, Britain was still oppressing gay men. George’s position as a Jewish refugee, hearing of atrocities in Berlin and reading of suicides of men arrested in England, is particularly bitter. And from me it wins its fourth mouse by a whisker for sheer energy, great lyrics and good heart.
01473 295 900 to 5 April then touring to 3 may – http://www.missnightingale.co.uk