Writer, Music &Lyrics: Matthew Bugg
Director: Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
Miss Nightingale originally premiered at the Lowry Studio, Salford and the King’s Head Islington in 2011, and has since undergone a significant re-write to the book, music and lyrics; all by composer Matthew Bugg, who is also responsible for the music behind the West End productions of Volcano, Three men in a Boat and The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, as well as touring productions of Go Back For Murder, Northanger Abbey and Hound of the Baskervilles (among others).
The musical is set in wartime London, and tackles some big issues. With gay marriages now legal in the UK, it is appalling to think that just a few decades ago you would have been prosecuted for gross indecency. The 1940’s welsh prosecution of 20 men (with sentences from one to twelve years) features in the musical, and is a hard-hitting reminder of our nations shameful past.
Sheffield actress Jill Cardo as Maggie Brown (Miss Nightingale) steals the show, portraying a character who is loyal and fiercely proud. A talented comedy singer, Maggie is looking for work with her accompanist George Nowodny (played by Harry Waller), but is determined to get there on her own merit without compromising her beliefs. You can’t help but love her. Cardo has a wonderful ability to create hysteria in the audience with only a few glances and an extended pause. Certain scenes, which could otherwise border on slapstick cringe, are masterfully handled with ease and confidence as she flirts with the audience with the cheeky humour of a northern lass.
The small cast of six double as the orchestra, who take up their respective instruments on stage. Cardo on the trumpet adds to the image of a no-nonsense girl, while composer Bugg also forms a discrete, but vital part of the cast. On piano, violin, saxophone and ukulele he demonstrates his considerable talent for music and all round flair (he also had a hand in costume design alongside Charlotte Armitage). Adam Langstaff plays gorilla like Tom Fuller, who evokes a palpable hate from the audience. Also on drums and percussion, this menace is quite forgotten as he adopts his other hat. The musical builds the characters up in such a way that it is hard not to feel something when friendships break down and tensions rise. As a viewer, you will find yourself wanting the characters to find a way, to win.
The set evokes the “make do and mend” attitude of the war. Art Deco uplighters tease with a reminder of past glamour, contrasting with the well-worn furniture and props used; a subtle nod to wartime scarcity of materials despite the obvious wealth of nightclub owner Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (played by Tomm Coles, also on saxophone and clarinet). A simple stage is situated to the rear of the set, created through the romantic use of drapes and curtains forming the platform for the show within a show.
There are some real song gems in this musical. Catchy and memorable after one listening, it features numbers such as ‘The Sausage Song’, ‘The Pussy Song’ and ‘Let Me Play On Your Pipe’. Needless to say there are innuendos a plenty; just what you need in wartime Britain for high spirits and morale boosting among troops. ‘Mr Follow Spot’ is a highlight, and a wonderful stand-alone song outside the context of the musical. ‘Could It Be’ is an intense and cleverly arranged trio for the three main characters, and there are also a number of fun and heartfelt duets. Encore ‘Call to Arms’ ends the production on a high, and as excellent as the cast are, it would be something spectacular with the might of a full orchestra behind it. Every musical needs that one big song; ‘Someone Else’s Song’ rounds off the story neatly and has all the hallmarks of a classic.
The narrative twists and turns and there poignant messages woven throughout; such as, happiness is putting your trust in friendship. It is quite possible to write a thesis based on Miss Nightingale. This is a truly multi-layered piece of theatre that will entice, educate and seduce you. It retains those qualities most loved by musicals, with a little something extra.
Runs until: 27April 2014