Returning to London after six years and five UK tours, Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale is nesting in The Vaults for a seven week run. Set in London in 1942, it is a completely original British musical that owes a debt to music hall and jazz for its soundtrack.
Maggie, a nurse, is brought by her partner Tom to Sir Frank’s new acquisition: a cabaret club that just happens to be located off Leake Street near Waterloo. In order to intrigue a wider audience, she is given the stage name Miss Nightingale and a star is born as the northern lass’ bawdy numbers are a hit in war-torn London. Amidst all this, Frank has begun an affair with Maggie’s friend George, a Polish Jew who has escaped from persecution in Berlin and composes her songs – however Tom finds out and, after ending his relationship with pregnant Maggie, proceeds to blackmail the rich and influential Frank. With homosexuality still a criminal act, the future looks bleak for the couple.
At the heart of it is a very important story, that of the inexplicable punishments handed out to gay men in the early twentieth century and the consequences. It brings to light some cases that are not widely reported, making it even more horrifying that this kind of thing was going on only about 70 years ago. However in allying it with a plot strand about how women were seen then (and continue to be seen by some now) I feel like the show is a bit bloated and not quite able to focus. Both are undeniably important issues (particularly in a world where Donald Trump is President), but it just feels like they’re competing for dominance and neither one really prevails.
The musical sections of the show are similarly at odds with each other: Miss Nightingale invariably giving her audience all-out jazz numbers, while the more MT elements are more flowing but downbeat. There’s far too much overlapping of vocal strands in the latter – ending the first act with Understudy feels strangely reminiscent of One Day More with each character singing their own part resolutely into the break. And from that point on they couldn’t stop doing it. This idea would probably be alright with improvements to the sound, however (as with All or Nothing at the same venue a year ago) the volume levels are all wrong so you can barely hear one set of vocals over the band, let alone multiple different ones.
To me it seems that the show is attempting to be the British version of Cabaret, with its interspersed numbers in the club. Unlike Cabaret, which drew on the wealth of social commentary from Christopher Isherwood’s remarkable Berlin novels for Emcee’s numbers, Miss Nightingale seems to be there exclusively to sing in double entendre. As much as I enjoy the concept of a show within a show, there is far too much of this. Whilst her songs are linked to the previous scene (though often quite tenuously), she only seems to exist as a comic interlude and detracts from the actual story that is unfolding. I could listen to the music all day long, which is catchy and faithful to its origins, but the content of the songs is all too 1970s sitcom for me. With titles like Sausage Song and The Pussy Song you almost expect Mrs Slocombe to make an appearance!
It is obviously a matter of personal taste as far as whether you find this kind of thing funny, but even if it was remotely my cup of tea I’d like a hint of variety (or just less of it) to balance things out a bit and explore other avenues of comedy. It would also enhance the emotional aspect of the piece; with the abrupt transitions between scenes there is no room for engagement with the characters’ emotions, and you don’t find yourself particularly worried about their fates. Even the eventual (or perhaps inevitable) incursion of the German bombing raids on the club can’t heighten the drama. The running time is currently just over two and a half hours, which seems too long to me.
For whatever reason there is a heavy reliance on a slightly sporadic smoke machine, randomly spluttering into life even during indoor scenes. Carla Goodman’s set is interestingly designed, so it seems a shame for it to be obscured in this way with no real justification.
The lead performances from Nicholas Coutu-Langmead (Frank), Conor O’Kane (George) and Tamar Broadbent (Miss Nightingale) are strong, and their vocals really shine in the ballads. There are glimmers of fantastic harmonies in there too, though frustratingly these are also occasionally drowned out by the band. Broadbent has a natural voice for the jazzier songs, and charisma by the bucketload – she is at her best in Miss Nightingale mode, though even her performance is not enough to change your mind about your taste in comedy.
My verdict? Some great actor-musicianship, but an important story is lost in a sea of innuendo – it could almost be called Carry On Up The Cabaret.
Miss Nightingale runs at the Vaults until 20 May 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.