Blonde Bombshells of 1943

Alan Plater
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2007)

Production photo

A young schoolgirl sits centre stage holding a pair of red, sparkling high heeled platform shoes – shoes which Granny had kept as a reminder of the most extraordinary day of her life – a day, in war torn 1943, which changed her life for ever.

Flashback to that day, and a rehearsal room which has not escaped unscathed. The base drum has split and there is dust and debris every, although the piano is believed to be in better tune after the air raid than it was before.

There is little here in the way of plot, simply bandleader Betty (a tough, no nonsense, let’s get on with the job Alison Harding) auditioning recruits to replace the members of her all-girls band that she has lost along the way. Every time the Blonde Bombshells play to an American air base some of the girls find romance, and Betty needs four more accomplished musicians for a gig on BBC radio – the first she has ever managed to achieve and she has no intention of missing out on it. It seems a forlorn hope to expect to complete her band so quickly, but it’s wartime so “You have to make do”.

Those auditioning are a motley crew – an “upper class tart” sent by her commanding officer to help boost the troops’ morale, an excitable and enthusiastic nun, schoolgirl Liz in plaits and school uniform, and a man who has managed to dodge conscription and has to be disguised in a frock.

Dialogue is, surprisingly, a little weak, although some smart and swift one-liners from the members of the band hit their mark, but most jokes pass by almost unnoticed. It is when these girls start to play that the whole theatre wakes up and takes notice. The ‘audition’ period gives each a chance to shine individually. Rosie Jenkins as upper class Miranda surprises everyone with her expertise on the trumpet. Liz (a multi-talented Pam Jolley who also plays piano and guitar) is childishly excited and delighted to be given a saxophone to play as well as her own clarinet. A big surprise is Georgina Field, a small and volatile nun who appears to be a cross between Jane Horrocks and George Formby. She plays an animated banjo and also expertly controls a hot sax. Last to arrive is drummer Patrick (Oliver Chopping), a cheeky chappie with an eye for the girls.

In spite of another air raid, they somehow manage to get their act together and the second half is mainly their performance, live at the BBC. This is the music of the forties, over a dozen superb tunes including Body and Soul, Tuxedo Junction, Home Town (as a tribute to Flannagan and Allen) and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. Great music played superbly by as swinging a group of actor musicians as you could wish for and guaranteed to send the audience out with a smile on its face and a song in its heart.

If you would like to know what might have happened to the girls in later life you can’t do better than find the video of the television film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, by the same author and starring Judi Dench and Ian Holm – an enchanting and wryly amusing story of Bombshells reunited.

Touring to Eastbourne and Mold, with further dated to be announced.

David Chadderton reviewed the original production at the Octagon, Bolton

Reviewer: Sheila Connor