“any shortfalls in the book are compensated for by the score and the sweeping enthusiasm of the actor musicians”
It is 1942 and life in London is a daily ordeal. Blackouts, bombs and The Blitz. Although Matthew Bugg’s musical, “Miss Nightingale”, is set among the hail of enemy bombs it actually concentrates more on the ‘enemy within’; a phrase coined to describe the plight of homosexuality at the time. In an atmospheric, and perhaps overpromising opening scene, two men share a cigarette and exchange sexual promises in the shadows. They, rather than the bombers overhead, are the target of the searchlights, and in a similar way Bugg has narrowed the focus to create a very human story in the heart of our war-torn capital.
Maggie Brown is a nurse and aspiring singer sharing a flat with George, her song writer and a Jewish refugee who still pines for the uninhibited world of 1920s Berlin. With unlikely swiftness they secure a gig at the newest nightclub in town, owned by the socialite Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe. Maggie’s beau Tom re-christens her ‘Miss Nightingale’ and the musical duo become a West End hit. But their success and happiness are threatened by secrets, blackmail, betrayal and forbidden love.
The programme cites Bugg as the writer, director, producer and he is also in the cast and plays piano, saxophone, violin, clarinet and double bass. Clearly it is a labour of love and with that comes the inevitable label of ‘vanity project’. It clearly isn’t, though, yet it could benefit from an outside eye, particularly as it has been doing the rounds for quite some time now. The story is thoroughly engaging but the dialogue frequently touches on cliché, and complexities of character are often lost in innuendo. But any shortfalls in the book are compensated for by the score and the sweeping enthusiasm of the actor musicians. Lauren Chinery, as the eponymous Miss Nightingale, is the show stealer; acting, singing, dancing and playing saxophone and clarinet in a blaze of a performance; all with a twinkle in her eye that tells the audience she is loving every minute. She is in great company too, with a close-knit quality to the cast that make this production a joy to watch. Matthew Floyd Jones, as her gay best friend George, gives a moving portrayal of a man struggling with illicit love, effortlessly slipping into song, particularly during solo numbers; ‘I’ll Sing For No One But Myself’ and ‘Mein Liebe Berlin’ which puts us right in the heart of the world of ‘Cabaret’.
Where the first act lacks any real sense of danger, the second act comes into its own and the slapstick gives way to the drama we have been waiting for, poignantly reminding us too of what it was like to be a gay man before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Bugg excels at bringing these characters together with a cast that re-defines ‘triple threat’. When not in character each multi-instrumentalist cast member becomes part of the mini-orchestra.
This is ultimately an uplifting piece of musical theatre that boosts morale in the spirit of the time it is set. The underlying sub thread of the war-time narrative is that there’s nothing like the threat of death to make people determined to get the most out of life. Likewise, this show, that has supreme potential, still needs to navigate some of the obstacles that lie in the way of the long life it deserves. But I have little doubt that this particular cast, whose own morale needs little boosting, can help break the barriers.
After five UK tours the original British musical, Miss Nightingale by Matthew Bugg, finally enjoys an extended London run six years after a small-scale production of the show was first seen in the capital.
Miss Nightingale, The Musical transfers to The Vaults for an eight-week residency from 30 March to 20 May. We got to speak to one of the stars of the show, Miss Nightingale herself, Tamar Broadbent …
This is your musical theatre debut and you are in the process of developing your own musicals. What’s the appeal of the musical to you and does this mean you’ll be hanging up your comedy hat?
I’ve always loved musicals and I’ve always loved comedy. The two aren’t mutually exclusive in my book. I mix the two together in my solo shows and love my musicals best when they’re funny. I will continue to work in both areas and I’m especially excited to be making my musical theatre debut in Miss Nightingale because it is exactly the sort of new musical I would want to see; it is unconventional in the best sense.
The central love story is between two men, and Maggie is a fiery, loud and outspoken female, much like myself. I only want to be involved in playing and creating interesting female characters, and I love shows that challenge the traditional boy meets girl plot that we see everywhere. Matthew Bugg’s show does this wonderfully.
I made a decision quite early on in my career that I wanted to do as many of the things I love as often as I possibly could, and I’ve been lucky enough so far to do just that. This is an exciting new chapter.
How does working with a full company compare to your solo shows?
It’s so lovely to be a part of a cast again – I enjoy collaborating as well as working individually, but it’s great during this rehearsal process to have people to joke around with (I mean, work hard with), and to hear someone laugh at my jokes who isn’t me. Everyone involved in Miss Nightingale is so nice and there’s a real sense that we’re part of something special.
Your CV lists a ‘clown course’ as one of your studies. Have you ever needed to put your clown skills into practise in an everyday situation?
Clowning is basically about being joyful, silly and positive on stage, as well as in life (it’s not necessarily the red nose, big shoes and water-squirting flowers that spring to mind). I do a clown course every year to remember to stay positive and keep being silly. Life often teaches us to take ourselves too seriously, and I think everyone could benefit from clowning around every once in a while! I recommend Mick Barnfather (www.mickbarnfather.com), he’s my favourite teacher in town.
You’ve got quite an impressive CV of work – yet you have yet to have the ‘must have’ for all actors’ biographies … ‘Midsomer Murders’ … If you ever did an MM would you prefer a ‘Copper, Criminal or Corpse’ role?
I’d be a copper and show some criminals what for! I’m pretty tough (can’t you tell?) and Maggie’s pretty tough. It’s one of the reasons I like her so much.
With the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK – do you feel there is a special pertinence in bringing the show back to London this year to where it is based?
The show feels sadly relevant today, in times when intolerance is rearing its ugly head more often than one would like or expect, but Mr Bugg Presents as a company are very much about giving people the benefit of the doubt and not pre-judging anyone’s reaction to it. I know they’ve disappointingly had some homophobic comments on tour but they have never let that affect their journey, and the majority of feedback to the show has been overwhelmingly positive – audiences have loved it.
As well as gay rights during the war, Miss Nightingale addresses a range of social issues like class prejudice, changing roles of women in society and the treatment of refugees, which are set in 1942 but still feel resonant with today’s issues. The show manages to do so in an entertaining and unobtrusive way, which is part of its brilliance.
Did you have to do a lot of research for the ‘saucy raunchy singer’ part of the role?
Haha – sort of! I’m more of a silly dancer than a sexy dancer when out and about, so you’ll certainly be seeing a rarely seen side of me in this show. (Not that side. Behave!).
What can the audience expect from the show?
To laugh, to be moved, to want to dance and sing along… to think, to feel, to take off all your … I’m getting carried away. But at the very least, they can expect a bloody good time.
Describe the show in just three words
Funny, charming & (totally) raucous.
Given that you write, act, sing, dance, play keyboards – you seem to always be busy – what do you do in your free time when you ever get any?
Drink a lot of cups of tea. Think about how I’d save the world if I had time. Wonder if I could be a ‘hat’ person. Drink a lot of glasses of wine. Name the frogs living in our pond. Compile mega playlists of all the best songs from the noughties. See my 94-year-old Grandma and assure her I’m really too busy to be getting married and settling down at the moment, but that’s fine because it’s 2017 and let me show you pictures of all the handsome men I met on holiday.
If you could play any theatrical role, which would you choose and why?
Annie from Annie Get Your Gun.
Miss Nightingale feature a completely original score, whereas the trend at the moment is juke box musicals and film musical adaptations with a few new songs added in. Do you personally think that there are too many juke box shows around?
I like a good jukebox musical – Rock of Ages is my fav. I don’t think there are too many jukebox musicals, I just think there aren’t enough good new musicals being given seasons. As a writer I know how hard it is to even imagine getting to this stage. You often have to to take your destiny into your own hands and make things happen for yourself – like Mr Bugg did. And look how fantastic a journey they’ve had – five UK tours, being placed in British Theatre’s ‘Top 100 Greatest Musicals of all time’ and finally a London transfer to The Vaults. There is hope yet!
Given that the audience probably won’t know any of the songs from Miss Nightingale, what can they expect? Are there any particular tunes that will stick in their heads?
I adore the score. The style is a mix of musical theatre and cabaret, that harks back to the 1940s but has a fresh new flavour. The harmonies are lush, the numbers range from comic to heartbreaking… and they’re all currently stuck in my head!
The question we ask everyone at the moment – your thoughts on the new US president …?
You never think these things will happen, until they do. We’ve been here before. And we we seem to keep ending up here. When you’re a tiny person in a big, flawed world it’s hard to know how to do anything about it apart from drink tea and sigh, but there are little things you can do.
The one I’m trying at the moment is to challenge things in everyday conversation. “I’m not homophobic but I fail to see how two men kissing counts as entertainment…”, “I don’t normally find women funny but you were good…”, I used to let these things go, but if you don’t question it, even gently, then nothing changes.
I’d rather not get invited to dinner parties any more than keep quiet. It’s one of the reasons I no longer get invited to dinner parties.
What was the last production you got to see?
A production of my and John Victor’s musical, Club Mexicano at Edge Hill University. We workshopped it there in conjunction with Perfect Pitch Ltd for two weeks with the fabulous director Julie Atherton and choreographer Stuart Rogers-Quish. It was a great deal of fun – more plans for the show are scheduled this Autumn so keep an eye out!
Your costumes for the show look a lot of fun – are they? Do you enjoy dressing up for a part?
I never get to dress up – I’m quite casual when I perform stand-up comedy so I can’t wait to get the fishnets and sparkly gear on again. There’s such a stylish, sexy, and comic range of outfits – Maggie dresses up as a Pearly Queen, a factory worker, an old woman, an American soldier, Noel Coward(!) and a classic 1940’s showgirl… Let’s hope I manage all my quick changes!
You are a skilled pianist – who would you most like to perform a duet with on the piano
Probably Hugh Laurie. But Hugh Laurie playing House.
What can we expect from you later in the year?
In June, I am performing my play Split, which I co-wrote with the brilliant Emma Pritchard, at the Brighton Fringe. I will also be touring my musical comedy show Get Ugly to Berlin! The birthplace of cabaret… which feels wonderfully appropriate after performing Miss Nightingale.
Have you ever done anything during a performance or rehearsal you are particularly ashamed or / embarrassed about?
I have just got back from touring my show Get Ugly to the Perth Fringe in Australia. During one of the shows, a man I had gotten up on stage said “you’ve got lipstick on your teeth, that’s why everyone is laughing at you”. For a moment I was mortified.. and then I remembered I’m a strong, powerful woman who doesn’t get embarrassed about having lipstick on her teeth, so called him a ‘bearded c**t’ and made fun of him for the rest of the show. (Don’t worry, we’re friends now!)
And finally, is there a cast recording going to be available?
I hope so!
Many thanks to Tamar for her time today and thanks also to Matthew and Tobias at Mr Bugg Presents
If Tamar’s glowing recommendation about Miss Nightingale isn’t enough, writer and director of the show, Matthew Bugg says:
“Miss Nightingale mixes a gripping story with satirical comedy and lots of saucy innuendo to give people a great night out with lots of laughter, cheers and ,maybe the odd tear or two as well. It’s rather different from most ‘new’ musicals because it’s not based on an existing book, play, film or greatest hits collection. It’s a new and original show. And we don’t have a separate band, our wonderful cast act, sing and play all the music cabaret-style. They’re a very talented bunch! At the same time the show explores prejudice – antisemitism. homophobia and misogyny – in World War Two London when Britain was fighting against this very thing in Nazi Germany. It was inspired by a belief in the need to stand up for what you believe in and not to take hard-won equal rights for granted. Given recent events both in the UK and overseas this message sadly seems even more relevant than ever in 2017! The arts, performance and satire in particular seem like some of the best ways to counter the alt-right – across Europe, the State and elsewhere – and its propaganda of hate, fear and separation. So come, have a bloody good time, then stand up and resist!”