Blonde Bombshells of 1943

Alan Plater
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Blonde Bombshells of 1943

After the success of last year's Eight Miles High, the Octagon has once again presented us with a summer production featuring a large cast of actor-musicians. This year, we step back a couple of decades from the 1960s hippy festival in Jim Cartwright's play to 1943 and the all-girl dance band The Blonde Bombshells.

Plater has often featured music in his writing (always from the pre-rock era, just like Dennis Potter) from his 1968 political stage play Close the Coalhouse Door to three series for TV that collectively go under the title The Beiderbecke Trilogy, named after jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. The Blonde Bombshells is an all-girl dance band that has to quickly recruit four new members to replace those lost to problems caused by the war - such as the charms of visiting American soldiers - in time for a live concert broadcast on BBC radio the same evening. The new band members are an odd collection of people: a schoolgirl, a nun, a very posh but not very bright girl from the army and a man who agrees to dress as a girl to get the job.

The play follows similar lines to other plays and films in which a group of people reveal their problems and clash with one another, coming together just in time to create a performance at the end, such as A Chorus Line, Stepping Out, The Full Monty or even sporting stories such as Up 'N' Under.

The four new members of the band are all great characters with some very funny lines; however the existing members come over as being a little dull, as they sit around reading or playing cards, throwing in the occasional witty insult from the background. Because of this, the pace sometimes slows when they or bandleader Betty (Elizabeth Marsh) are speaking, which kills some of the humour. However there are still plenty of laughs to go around; this is principally a comedy, as the serious issues are really only touched on to give context and are not dealt with in any depth, and it is very funny in parts.

Fans of the dance band sound will love the music, which is well played and nicely sung by the whole cast, and sounds great when the whole cast finally plays and sings together for the concert at the end. The sound design (by Andy Smith) is a little distracting though, as every time someone sings during the play, their voice suddenly comes from above the heads of the audience instead of from the actor. This may work in a theatre the size of the Palace, but in the much more intimate environment of the Octagon it is quite disorientating. Perhaps better positioning of speakers and a more natural sounding reverb would help, but it is debatable whether voice amplification is necessary at all in such a small theatre, except perhaps for when the whole band plays at the end.

The visual design by Libby Watson is very nice, utilising different elements of wartime theatres, such as half a plaster proscenium arch, theatre seats, a chandelier, a safety curtain and a velvet theatre curtain, all in a rather run-down state. Surrounding the stage at the back and front are pieces of fractured timber that look like they are from a bomb site with old wartime radios lying in the rubble.

There are some very funny performances from Claire Storey as Lily (the nun), Karen Paullada as Elizabeth (the schoolgirl), Rosie Jenkins as Miranda (the posh girl, who appeared in last year's Eight Miles High) and Chris Grahamson as Patrick (the token man, who seems to have stolen Peter Kay's voice for the character).

The actor-musician production is a new tradition at the Octagon and one that works very well, as it mixes a theatre performance with the power and atmosphere of a live band in an intimate setting, something that you never get with recorded music and is usually lacking when using a hidden, amplified band in the larger theatres. This production is great fun and a perfect summer show for the Octagon.

"Blonde Bombshells of 1943" runs until 1 July 2006

Philip Fisher reviewed this production when it moved to the Hampstead Theatre

Reviewer: David Chadderton