MusicalNorth WestReview

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 – The Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Reviewer: Jay Nuttall

Writer: Alan Plater

Director – Zoe Waterman

It is easy to see why northern theatres have programmed The Blonde Bombshells of 1943 many times over the last twenty years. Beginning life at Leeds Playhouse in 2004, Alan Plater’s nostalgic look back at all female wartime swing bands has made several appearances in Bolton before and is a welcome return for the theatre’s patrons.

Band leader Betty needs new blood for her band. The Blonde Bombshells keep losing members – often to soldiers stationed from overseas at their gigs! A series of auditions in a recently bombed theatre in an unnamed northern town unearth a schoolgirl, a nun, a snobbish upper crust solider and a male drummer prepared to drag up to make the band. It sounds like a set up to a joke and perhaps this is exactly what Plater was trying to evoke. The band must rehearse their set, travel to Hull (or ‘Ull) and perform a morale boosting session live on air for the BBC – all in the space of one afternoon!

This preposterous feat is, of course, ridiculous in reality but it plot doesn’t seem to be an important aspect of this show. Difficult to pigeonhole, Blonde Bombshells of 1943, is best described as a revue of 1940s wartime swing as opposed to classifying it as a musical, jukebox musical or a play with music. The band pleasingly take us through the music of Glenn Miller, The Andrew Sisters, George Formby and Fats Waller. However, Plater’s book throughout is almost non-existent as are the progression of any character or dramatic tension. How important this is for a theatre-going audience is a separate topic. For Bolton’s audience this doesn’t seem to be an issue.

The success of this show over the years, and in abundance in The Octagon’s production, is the delightful musicianship. Each cast member fully justify their place onstage during every musical interlude. As ‘newbies,’ Liz (Lauren Chinery), Miranda (Stacey Ghent), Patrick (Rory Gradon) and Lily (Gleanne Purcell-Brown) are all afforded their own moment to shine under the guise of auditioning for the band already in place. More so, they are wonderfully supported by the members of the ‘bombshells’ already in place. Pianist May (Verity Bajoria), trumpeter Vera (Sarah Groarke), double-bassist Grace (Alice McKenna) and band leader and saxophonist Betty (Georgina Field) might be the backbone of the band but are also the backbone of the production. The pleasure and appeal of this show is certainly derived from witnessing the excellent musicianship delivering superb arrangements and close harmony singing under the musical directorship of Greg Last.

Plater’s light-hearted script, although only twenty years old, has not aged well. A romantic interlude between conscription shirking Patrick and schoolgirl Liz is problematic and the framing device of flashback feels lazy and without theatrical invention. The theatricality is not helped by a long and convoluted scene change involving setting up the microphones of a BBC studio which seems unforgivable given eight talented musicians who are not utilised to make an interesting break in the action.

Bombshells is a joyous piece of musical escapism. As director Zoe Waterman expresses in her programme notes there is a real resonance in people making music in the face of national crises and this is where the show succeeds. It is an unashamed excuse for a swing band to transport us back to a bygone era and within this parameter the show is a wonderful celebration and expertly played.

Runs until 1st July 2023 before touring to Theatre by the Lake, Keswick and The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

The Reviews Hub Score

Joyously infectious

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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