Writer/Composer: Matthew Bugg
Directors: Karen Simpson, Matthew Bugg
Designer: Carla Goodman
Musical Director: Matthew Bugg
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Matthew Bugg’s ever-popular musical, Miss Nightingale, has just started what he insists is its final tour, running through October and then resuming at greater length in the New Year. Much of it has been re-worked, with songs left out and new songs included, and in many ways this production has a different feel from last year’s.
Once again, CAST has played a key rôle in helping Mr Bugg Presents get this show on the road, but co-producer this time is the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, whose director Karen Simpson shares directing duties with Matthew Bugg.
The story remains pretty much the same. In 1942 Maggie Brown, a Northern cabaret artist becomes the toast of London with the aid of impresario/man about town Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe, émigré Polish-Jewish songwriter George Nowodny and her agent and lover, Tom Fuller. In between belting out the songs of her cabaret act, she is embroiled in a complicated web of relationships: Sir Frank and George become gay lovers, Tom is not above a bit of blackmail to supplement his black market earnings, Maggie herself is pregnant by Tom, and so on. Eventually, the happy-ish ending is reached by means of the old expedient, “Keep calm and sing a saucy song.”
The accompaniments to the 20 or so songs are provided by the cast members, with Bugg himself scoring on piano, saxophone, clarinet, violin and ukulele, as well as playing small parts, notably Maggie’s cheeky brother, home on embarkation leave. The instruments express character less than in last year’s production, instead providing a frequently witty accompaniment to the songs.
Maggie Brown (Miss Nightingale) dominates the production in Clara Darcy’s virtuoso performance, but oddly is not really involved in an active way in the key off-stage moments until very late in the play. The moral dilemmas are much more to do with the rôle of homosexuality in a society where it is illegal and even considered to be evil. The camp ghost of Cabaret hovers over George’s nostalgia for pre-Nazi Berlin.
George, in fact, is the most interesting and complicated character in Miss Nightingale, with a past and a hinterland, swinging from gentle co-operation to angry pride, his self-control disappearing in a bottle of brandy or a furious outburst. Conor O’Kane adds to this a bit of jaunty song and dance, as does Nicholas Couto-Langmead (Sir Frank), more conventionally drawn, but nicely played. Christopher Hogben (Tom) never overplays the nasty little spiv and does sterling work on drums and percussion.
Clara Darcy’s performance is remarkable, putting over song after song with not an innuendo missed, every double entendre singled out, taking on character rôles from Rosie the Riveter to Noel Coward (excellent!), playing the trumpet and doing the splits on top of the piano. Some may find the accent a touch too broad (very Gracie Fields), the leers and winks too unrelenting, but it’s a terrific period pastiche.
Carla Goodman’s set design is economical, attractive and perfectly in key with the play: rich-looking curtains, a night-club proscenium, musical instruments everywhere, a table and chair and a bed. And, for Miss Nightingale’s many costumes – whether glamorous, parodic or both – Charlotte Armitage shares the credit with the ubiquitous Matthew Bugg.
Runs until 17 October 2015 then touring nationwide | Image: Contributed