Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Lionel Bart and Joan Maitland
Director: Phil Wilmott
You have to admire the courage of director Phil Wilmott as he never takes the easy route when it comes to selecting plays. Last year, he directed After Dark: Or a Drama of London Life, a Victorian melodrama that once played in one of the biggest theatres in London and which included a spectacular tube train crash. Wilmott put it on in one of the smallest theatres in town. Now he turns his hand to Blitz!, Lionel Bart’s musical which, when it was originally produced in 1962, was one of the most expensive shows ever staged.
Even though Wilmott has pared Blitz! down to a tidy length – Noel Coward reportedly moaned that the musical seem to last twice as long as the actual Blitz – it’s still a lumbering beast, lacking an engaging storyline, and prone to meander in the second half. However, it does feature an outstanding performance from Jessica Martin, who is nearly every scene.
Wilmott’s cast is huge, (over 20, but it’s hard to keep count) and in the small Union Theatre, it seems as if the whole population of the East End has come across the river to star in this show. We first see them squashed into a corner of the stage, some moveable screens signifying that the location is a platform at Petticoat Lane tube station. It’s night in 1940 or 1941 and bombs are falling. The platform is full of families taking shelter. along with wardens, ambulance drivers, soldiers, and children about to be evacuated. When they break out into song, it’s a wonder they have space to move.
Martin plays Mrs Blitztein, a Jewish widow and matriarch, always at loggerheads with her neighbour Mr Locke. They argue about most things, with Mr Locke often throwing some anti-Semitic insults her way, but their families are about to become closer when her daughter and his son fall in love. The other plotline revolves around Mrs Blitztein’s son, Harry, who deserts the army to become a spiv, trading in the black market. Neither of these stories is very interesting, unfortunately.
But if the narrative is less than gripping, some of the set pieces are delightful including the opening song Our Hotel (about the bomb shelter) and the busy Petticoat Lane, where a market is imagined in the narrow streets of East London. Best of all is Who’s that Geezer Hitler? a rollicking Cockney-Cor-Blimey-How’s-Your-Father-Knees-Up-Mother-Brown ditty in which the whole company partakes. If only some of the actors would dance in character rather than if they were in stage school, these spectacles would be truly breath-taking.
Other songs are not so good like Bake a Cake and Magic Doorway, and even the song that Bart wrote especially for Vera Lynn, The Day After Tomorrow, isn’t quite the patriotic anthem that it wants to be. The music is provided by a four-piece band, but sometimes the male leads, Harry (Robbie McCartney) and George (Connor Carson) have trouble projecting their voices above the piano and drums. Martin has no problems in being heard, and belts out every song she’s given.
Blitz! is playing at the Union as part of Wilmott’s annual series Essential Classics, this year celebrating 75 years since V. E. day. The season began with a cracking update of Tom Brown’s School Days and ends next month with the little known Coward play, Peace in Our Time. Even though Blitz! is based on Bart’s own memories, its nostalgia doesn’t quite work as well as it did in 1962. But, in the main, it’s a fun revival that has a few sparkling moments.
Runs until 7 March 2020