Blonde Bombshells of 1943

Alan Plater
Produced by Hampstead Theatre and The Octagon, Bolton
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
(2009)

Production photo

Ot was in 2000 that Plater’s television film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells was aired on the BBC. With a host of stars, headed by Judi Dench and Ian Holm, it was a touching, sad, funny and optimistic story of a widowed grandmother, Elizabeth, planning a reunion concert of the all-girl dance band she played in as teenager during World War Two, and was a tribute to the girl bands of the time who performed to keep up the morale of the forces. They kept going through thick and thin, losing a few along the way to the American GIs, but with the frightening thought that any of them could be killed at any time.

This show, although written later, is the story of young, innocent Elizabeth’s day when she first learnt about “love, sex, betrayal and death” and had her first ‘grown-up’ kiss. Just add air-raid sirens, the drone of ‘planes overhead, the odd bomb dropping nearby, and the first time she sings on the wireless – well, days don’t get much more exciting than that!

The story begins in a church hall where an air raid has rendered the piano in better tune than before, and the plain-speaking Northern lasses gather to rehearse and to audition some new members to fill in the gaps created by the Gi’s. The writing is good - sharp and witty, with plenty of wise-cracking humour - but all the same the show seemed a little slow coming to life, a little static, with some of the characters over-emphasising their attributes. The three aspiring to join the band were a motley crew, ‘upper class tart’ Miranda (Rosie Jenkins) seeming to know nothing of music, describing a trombone as “one of those shiny things that slide in and out” which led to some ribald comments from the girls, and her description of a music score is “darling little tadpoles swinging from telephone wires”. Schoolgirl Liz (Laura Stevely) is very talented, but young and gauche, and the third one surprised everyone by arriving in her nun’s habit.

Luckily the local Mother Superior reads the Melody Maker, had seen band leader Betty (Charlotte Armer)’s advert, and she has sent along a darling, jolly, little nun (Sarah Whittuck) to help the war effort, and she proceeds to show how well she will do this with her spirited rendition of George Formby’s “In my Little Snapshot Album”, complete with banjo and with no idea that there might be anything rude in the lyrics.

As my Canadian guest said, “When the wigs go on the show takes off” and it is when these girls start to play they really show their talent. The second act is almost all music with the girls (and one man in a frock) dressed in glamorous ruby red, playing the great music of the period (excellently orchestrated by Howard Gray) on piano, double bass, trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, and conscription dodger Patrick (Matthew Ganley) on the drums. The girls find a way of dealing with this man and not to his liking, but it turns out all right in the end.

The audience loved it, vocally showing their appreciation and asking for more, and the tunes came thick and fast – Body and Soul, When I Grow Too Old to Dream, Tuxedo Junction, Where or When – and Elizabeth, Miranda and nun Lily become the Valentino Sisters – their voices blending beautifully in the Andrews Sisters’ songs Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, and The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. There are even tributes to Flanagan and Allen and Gracie Fields.

A great fun-filled show with extremely talented and versatile performers – and what better way to shake off the winter blues.

Touring to Peterborough, Windsor, Eastbourne, Colchester, and Hull

John Johnson reviewed this production in Northampton

Reviewer: Sheila Connor