Mr Bugg Presents, in co-production with New Wolsey Theatre and in association with The Lowry
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
This is very nearly a terrific show. It has all the right ingredients: great music, clever, witty lyrics which are pertinent to the plot, extremely gifted actor-musicians and Miss Nightingale sings her little heart out in every song (and there are around twenty of them). Where it seems to become a little unravelled is simply the number of themes jostling for prominence, and each one with a strong justification for being included.
The story covers homosexuality and its illegality at that period (1942), racism, anti-semitism, the scandal of adultery, unmarried mothers, blackmail, and all against the background of the war—bombs dropping, loved ones missing in action and an unscrupulous ‘spiv’ dealing in black market goods and having ‘bit on the side’ for his own entertainment. There is also a certain nostalgia for the decadent state of Berlin before the Nazis took over, and worry about the plight of the Jews left behind.
The main storyline, however, concerns singer and dancer Maggie descending on London from her native Yorkshire hoping to achieve fame and fortune in the big city, seemingly a young innocent girl, but turning out to be one tough cookie that nobody is going to push around. She is living with Jewish George (how this liaison came about we are not told) but a ‘brief encounter’ in a dark alley shows that George is a ‘queer’ and his lover is aristocratic Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (superbly performed by Tomm Coles), owner of the Nightlight Club.
Most of the action takes place with Maggie (now called Miss Nightingale) on stage, and begins with an audition and her agent/lover arranging the deal for her employment, and in Carla Goodman’s set design the richly curtained stage takes prominence with the musicians on either side, all experienced actors but only a few taking part in the action.
Seemingly demure and modest Maggie begins her act with a song about the Pied Piper “Let me Play on your Pipe”, and we discover what burlesque is all about. As it states in the programme notes, it is all really a joke, tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes downright rude with the saucy postcard style of cheekiness, but not necessarily stripping, although Amber Topaz as Maggie shows us what she can really do if she sets her mind to it.
The songs and costumes are mostly comical style and often very, very funny, set to some of Matthew Bugg’s tunefully swinging score. Two girls behind us could not stop giggling the whole way through, and ‘The Pussy Song’ had them in fits, but there is a serious side too with Ilan Goodman’s George and his nostalgic “Meine Liebe Berlin”, and the sad longing of “This Can’t be Love”.
Writer, composer, choreographer, musical director, director and taking the part of Mac (on piano and ukulele), this is Matthew Bugg’s show and a triumph of expertise, inspiration and versatility. His music and lyrics are enjoyable, evocative of the period, and an essential part of the story. Just a little tightening up, concentrating on one or two themes instead of several, and here would be a brilliant production.
It may cause a little bemusement as it leaps from one theme to another, but just the same it is a thoroughly enjoyable show with great music.
Touring to Sheffield and Windsor.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor