Miss Nightingale: The Musical – The Vaults, London

Writer and Director: Matthew Bugg
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

‘It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case’ Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest, but it does make an excellent plot device if you’re hiding something in the 1940s.

The latest iteration of Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale: The Musical which arrives at The Vaults for a two-month run, entirely hinges on the chance discovery of a rather revealing message that leads to blackmail and intrigue in war-torn London, allowing Bugg to contrast the upheaval of conflict with concealed sexuality in a time of fear and repression.

Set in the The Vaults nightclub in London – a nice adaptation to the surroundings – retired fighter pilot Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe hires Maggie Brown as his newest cabaret act, won over by her fruity northern charm. With her comes musician Jurek “George” Nowodny, a homosexual Polish Jew who escaped Berlin for London in the late 30s, and soon begins an illicit affair with Frank. Renamed Miss Nightingale on stage, Maggie’s new life sets her at odds with boyfriend Tom who discovers Frank’s secret and decides to try a spot of blackmail.

Bugg’s musical is a vibrant blast of Blitz spirit, full of cheeky Music Hall numbers and enough energy to make its 2½-hour run time fly by. And it has an important central message about standing-up for each other which couldn’t be a timelier theme. But, now in its fifth redraft, the price of its exuberance and energy is a lack of proper character development for “George” and Maggie particularly, and a slightly too rapid jump to the men being in love before the audience has time to invest in them or their relationship.

The character of Frank is most successful, played with emotion and sensitivity by Nicholas Coutu-Langmead, developing from a man unwilling to genuinely engage with and accept his sexuality to someone who learns to understand himself more fully. And, interestingly, his sexuality is not the only thing in the show that defines him, roundedness is given through his approach to business, his war record and an engagement with social expectations that Coutu-Langmead portrays well. For all the levity in the rest of the music, when he sings Mister Nightingale and Someone Else’s Song the audience clearly sees the emotional churn within.

By contrast “George” is more overt about his sexuality, and despite an escape from Nazi persecution and hints at consequences for the family he left behind, he is just there to signal Frank’s re-evaluation with little agency of his own.

Conor O’Kane gives “George” an all-or-nothing personality as well as a different rhythm to the other characters that mark his outside status, but his frequent petulance and the speed of the ‘courtship’ with Frank make it harder to invest in his story or see why Frank would risk prison to be with him.

Tamar Broadbent’s Maggie is full of feisty no-nonsense charm, a modern woman who feels she can do whatever she wants, yet her story is not covered in sufficient depth to really understand what she wants and why. Broadbent does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of performance and about half the songs in the show are Miss Nightingale’s Music Hall numbers that have a real saucy charm. Broadbent is a delight in all of them and never more so than the hilarious Sausage Song. But, given they all have the same Carry-On innuendo, adding little to the plot, maybe a couple could be sacrificed to allow time for more developmental scenes, particularly in setting-up the relationships early-on and helping the audience to invest.

Bugg directs with swift assurance and scenes flow nicely together that keeps events moving. While perhaps the characters would have experienced a tad more of World War Two in Central London than they seem to, Bugg has created a glitzy world of outsiders looking for a way to live in peace. It may be called Miss Nightingale: The Musical but when Frank screams “This is my show!” you know it really is – a tender and affecting portrayal of self-discovery.

Runs until 20 May 2017 | Image: Robert Workman

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