Book, Lyrics and Composer: Matthew Bugg
Director: Karen Simpson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
When we look back on the Blitz now, we tend to have a romanticised view as we think of chirpy Cockneys making the best, of a capital city keeping calm and carrying on. The reality must have been quite different. Little wonder that many Londoners chose to “live today as if it is your last”, taking comfort where and with whom they could. The government recognised that the theatre had a role to play in keeping spirits up and so, after an earlier ban, they were encouraged to provide morale-boosting entertainment.
And what of those living at the edge of society? Refugees from the German onslaught abroad poured into the country. Despite homosexuality being illegal, there were plenty of young men willing to sell their bodies and plenty of other men happy to pay for an anonymous thrill in the darkness, despite the threat of scandal or prison should they be exposed.
In Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale, we see some of this other side of the coin.
Maggie Brown is a nurse and singer, George Nowodny a Polish Jew refugee and songwriter. Nowodny lived in the decadent pre-war Berlin of Christopher Isherwood with Maggie’s brother as his lover. They are separated and Nowodny fled to Britain to be taken in by Maggie. The pair forms a good team, together with Maggie’s lover, wide boy Tom Fuller, who acts as her agent. Fuller arranges for Maggie to audition for decorated war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe. The audition is somewhat awkward as the previous night Worthington-Blythe had propositioned Nowodny for sex.
Initially lukewarm, Worthington-Blythe takes Maggie and Nowodny on and, rechristened Miss Nightingale, she sets off to conquer London with her cheeky Northern charm and risqué songs but a happy ending seems unlikely.
This is Matthew Bugg’s first attempt at a full-length musical. While some of the songs are catchy or poignant, for example, Nowodny’s homage to his home in Berlin, Meine Liebe Berlin, it is over-reliant on a few theatrical devices. Some songs are taken from Miss Nightingale’s repertoire and are full of innuendo laid on thickly – Let Me Play on Your Pipe, The Sausage Song (“You have to get your sausage where you can!”) and The Pussy Song (ostensibly about a cat trapped in a door) all feature. Right from the start, others are performed with the actors singing soliloquies in isolation, harmonising together. This takes quite an act of will to listen to each as they sing their own lyrics. While the sound of these is easy on the ear, the essential poignancy of some of them is obstructed.
But the major flaw in Miss Nightingale is that it seems to try too hard to get every social issue in and, as a result, the story is disjointed and the characters become stock characters with whom we fail to empathise. Worthington-Blythe has much to lose from exposure, but we don’t really care. Nevertheless, after the interval, the production does step up a gear as events unfold and the jeopardy felt by many ramps up.
The actors – all of whom are multi-instrumentalists – do their best and have fine singing voices. Clara Darcy as Miss Nightingale and Nicholas Coutu-Langmead as Worthington-Blythe sing particularly well, Darcy’s turns as Miss Nightingale being full of knowing humour. Conor O’Kane’s Nowodny forms the third side of the central triangle. Together the three of them work hard to make their characters more rounded. Christopher Hogben’s Fuller has more success in that, despite taking a more minor rôle in the whole.
So a decent effort and a good first try from Bugg with some good moments of humour and poignancy, but not quite there yet. The energetic and talented young cast give their all, but ultimately Miss Nightingale doesn’t quite work.
Runs until: 13 February 2016| Image: Joe Armitage