Writer: Matthew Bugg
Director: Peter Rowe
Reviewer: Jane Pink
In his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp describes the heightened sensitivities of people living through the blackouts and bombings of the London Blitz. “As soon as the bombs started to fall, the city became like a paved double bed. Voices whispered suggestively as you walked along; hands reached out if you stood still and in dimly lit trains people carried on as they had once behaved in taxis”. It is this spirit of seizing the moment that Matthew Bugg captures quite brilliantly in this bright, funny, glamorous and poignant musical.
It is 1942 and Maggie Brown is doing her bit for the war effort, working in London as a nurse by day and singing in clubs in the evening under the controlling management of her married boyfriend, Tom. She shares a room with George, a Polish, Jewish songwriter, unaware of his previous romantic involvement with her brother, who has since been killed in action. When nightclub owner Sir Frank Worthington- Blythe signs Maggie up to sing for him at his club the lives of all three become inextricably linked. The story of Maggie’s transformation from chirpy northern songstress to glamorous “Miss Nightingale”, burlesque star and darling of the London club scene, runs alongside the burgeoning, yet illicit, romance between George and Sir Frank. But the lives of all three are rocked as Maggie finds herself pregnant and Frank and George struggle to keep their relationship secret and to avoid the persecution, and possible imprisonment, to which gay men were then subjected.
Matthew Bugg’s book and songs are cleverly written. Big, glitzy burlesque numbers contrast with tender, lyrical torch songs, the effect of which is to increase the impact of both. It requires a gifted company to act, sing and play their way through this energetic rollercoaster of emotions without becoming unbelievable, and every one of them does so with skill, verve and a real sense of enjoyment.
The relationship between George, who longs for pre-war Berlin and the sexual, social and political freedoms it offered, and Frank, constrained as much by his crippling Britishness as the anti-homosexuality legislation, is achingly tender. IIan Goodman as George is strong and dignified and his “Meine Liebe Berlin”was a highlight of the evening. Tomm Coles portrays Frank as both self-assured nightclub host and vulnerable lover with equal credibility and a glint of mischief in his eye.
But the star of the show is undeniably the divine Miss Amber Topaz. Her burlesque credentials shine through in a series of innuendo-stuffed songs among which are the wonderful Let Me Play On your Pipe and The Pussy Song. Her tribute to feminist icon Rosie the Riveter hints at both the debate about the rôle of burlesque today and the control that her character will eventually take in deciding her future. Ms Topaz is equally at home with more understated numbers. She sings The Understudy with sensitivity and shares several songs with Goodman and Coles that are genuinely moving.
Under Peter Rowe’s direction Matthew Bugg’s characters and songs are brought to life with an effervescent energy that avoids drifting towards camp. Carla Goodman’s attractive set design and cleverly choreographed scene changes create a strong sense of time and place and special mention should be made of Ms Topaz’s spectacular array of themed burlesque outfits.
In Miss Nightingale Matthew Bugg brings together the risqué traditions of burlesque and a touching love story in the tradition of Christopher Isherwood. This is a great evening out which will make you laugh with delight at the wonderfully smutty lyrics of Maggie’s nightclub songs, bring a tear to your eye at the dilemmas faced by the protagonists and send you home with a real sense of appreciation for the “Carpe Diem” philosophy of wartime London.
Runs until 13th July 2013