PLENTY OF ACTIVITY, NOT QUITE ENOUGH RADIANCE
This theatre is certainly fearless about potentially tasteless names – Bad Jews, Urinetown, now Miss Atomic Bomb: the first two of those, however, turned out hits. This one probably won’t, though it’s good to see a British team hurling itself at a big American theme. It’s set in the brief, stunningly ill-advised period between 1951 and 1954 when US Cold-War patriotism and dread of Commies flared – literally – into a positively celebratory series of atomic tests in the Nevada desert. The Bomb became a tourist draw: Las Vegas called itself Atomic City USA, onlookers crowded only ten miles from the blast in plastic sunglasses to admire the extra sunrises and flashes “brighter than a thousand suns”. Soldiers were ordered to crawl close in to observe – and receive – effects, and a “DoomTown” was built, with mannequins of homes and families – and live pigs – to test how the blast affected them and whether it really melted glass. And people. All this, note, less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The musical is by Gabriel Vick, Alex Jackson-Long and Adam Long (who also co-directs with choreographer Bill Deamer). A failing hotel, owned by New York hoods who shoot failures, needs a gimmick and lights upon a beauty pageant. Into this comes the hotelier’s brother Joe, an army deserter on the run, and pretty Candy Johnson the farm girl (Florence Andrews) whose trailer is being repossessed due to Grandma Chastity’s nightlife habit, thus thwarting her ambitions to move to California with her (rather improbable) aspiring fashion designer friend Myrna. Who is played by Catherine Tate with an unaccountable semi-Australian accent and a lot of trademark mugging. Thirteen other cast provide Mafiosi, showgirls, military, a lecherous atom-scientist, a repo man, and some retro Utah rustics whose sheep dropped dead in the “funny snow” (livestock did that, a lot. The US Army would robustly explain that it must be “malnutrition”).
So, OPPENHEIMER it ain’t: and as satire, perhaps sixty years late. Though frankly, in the age of Trump one does sense a resurgence of that American overconfidence and gung-ho naffery; and it did open on the day that Kim Jong Un threatened to “burn Manhattan to ashes”. So the Bomb’s still with us. But it’s brash, brutal, blackly comic, and noisy. Structurally a bit of a problem – too many jokey plotlines shoehorned in, such as Joey disguising himself as a rabbi because there are spare rabbi costumes from Easter when his dumb brother ordered rabbit ones. Geddit? There are also, despite some sharp lyrics, actually far too many same-y big numbers – their tone in some cases just musical-theatre-by-numbers. Set pieces are crammed together with too little room for acting and character development in between.
The second half is better, once the pageant acts get going (one, patriotic, one endearingly slutty , finally a soulful one from Candy). And there are some standout performances; Andrews herself proves a proper musical star as Candy, though is best served by the more C &W numbers like “How can I be a a beauty queen when all my sheep are gone?”. Dean John-WIlson is a likeable Joey, Gavin Cornwall a boomingly fine basso General (and chief hood). And Stephan Anelli stops the show as the nerdy atom scientist with his “Fallout is your Friend!” number.
Catherine Tate herself is oddly underpowered, but has one good comic number in the second half with the hotelier (Simon Lipkin) when they both admit their gayness and vow to marry as “A sugar Daddy and a beard”). And there are good tap routines, one involving a contribution from a corpse; and among the dancers is a Strallen, which is dynastically necessary to any classy Brit musical: it’s Sasi Strallen this time, a new one on me but well up to snuff. So by the end, my third mouse advanced shyly towards the cheese. But it was touch and go for a while.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 9 April