A joyous, outrageous, and wonderfully original romp, bunker down for an absolutely spiffing night with Miss Nightingale.
Frank, a war hero and an aristocrat, is setting up a cabaret club in London that’s going to be the wartime toast of the capital. To achieve this, he takes on board George, a Polish songwriter, and Maggie, a saucy music hall songstress and nurse performing under the title of Miss Nightingale. Frank soon falls in love with George, but staying together is as difficult as avoiding the bombs in Blitz-besieged London. Can their love triumph over the battles to come?
Who knew that World War II would be such a fertile ground for shows about cabarets. There’s of course, Kander & Ebb’s Caberet, then there’s Mrs. Henderson Presents, and now we also have Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale. But what exactly can Bugg’s musical really explore that hasn’t already been covered in the wartime canon of works as well as general LGBTQ stories that take place around the period, such as Sarah Waters The Night Watch?
Well, it turns out quite a bit! One of the really great things about Miss Nightingale is that it manages to mostly avoid anything obvious or clichéd. Anything that is there that has been seen before, like blackmailing people who don’t want to be outted, ends up going somewhere unexpected in ways that aren’t predictable. Indeed, the whole triangle of narratives and backstories between Frank, George, and Maggie, are all rich and interesting and far from obvious. It gets to the point where you really don’t know what’s to become of our trio, and you’re so invested in them as genuine, sincere, and loveable people that you’re desperately seeking happy endings for them all, despite being completely unsure as to whether it’s possible for them to get one, making Miss Nightingale a show of real complexity alongside its bawdy and campy moments.
The climax of Miss Nightingale is also absolutely gripping. During “Mr Follow Spot”, an angry and explosive burlesque number, the air-raid sirens go off and the bombs begin to fall whilst the show continues on regardless. It’s one of the few times I’ve actually been bowled over and gripped by such an intense theatrical moment that it has left me wide-eyed and breathless. This scene completely enshrines the caprice of all the character’s storylines coming to a head and unravelling uncontrollably before your eyes. All the secrets and compromises they’re all making just to keep treading water are as explosive as the bombs falling from the skies. It’s a genuinely thrilling and momentous moment in Miss Nightingale, and one that’s executed so unbelievably well.
The only issues I can really find with the book for Miss Nightingale is that some of the narrative progression happens quite suddenly to the point they don’t feel at all natural, with plot devices tending to escalated without much warning or development (deus ex machina, anyone?). But then again, Miss Nightingale is already incredibly pacey and you are left to wonder that, if plotlines were explored a little more organically, would Miss Nightingale would actually lose the punchy verve that it currently has? It’s actually quite possible that drawing out the narrative development to feel less contrived at points would do more harm than good to Miss Nightingale’s pacing. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Music and Lyrics
Bugg, also writing the songs for Miss Nightingale, does as an exquisite job as they have with the book, with songs ranging from raucous bawdiness to lilting and sweeping ballads. Bugg really excels with his music hall numbers, and these are possibly the most memorable songs from the show. They’re low-brow and crude, but at the same time incredibly funny if you’re into your innuendos, and monsterously clever if you listen carefully to the lyrics. Yes, I suppose it’s all pretty base and hardly classy stuff, but that’s music hall for you and Bugg couldn’t have captured this saucy lewdness with slicker aplomb. Indeed, you could be fooled for Bugg having pulled these songs right out of the 1940s rather than having composed them himself.
As for the rest of the score, Bugg covers several styles really well without ever sounding pastiche, especially a couple of really great Weimar-esque moments. But what’s really captivating about Bugg’s songs is actually how luscious and complex their orchestrations and choralisations are. This isn’t bland balladeering reminiscent of Rent: Bugg’s songs are intricately contrapuntal and richly harmonised pieces that are evocative of more traditional musicals, as well as sounding pretty damn impressive and memorable. They’re really fantastic and rousing to listen to, and are akin to songs you’d expect in high-end musical extravaganzas, and not something you’d expect to catche underneath Waterloo station.
Direction and Prdocution
The Vaults really is the perfect place for Miss Nightingale. The production team has really gone to town on making the whole experience semi-immersive, really playing on the literal underground feel of the venue being somewhat akin to an air raid shelter. Clever wartime propaganda posters by Polly Meynell, quoting lines from the show, don the walls alongside other really great touches like the programme being made to look like a ration book.
Carla Goodman’s design for the performance creates a lovely intimate but extravagant cabaret feel with its little proscenium stage taking central position. The rest of the design is nothing more than some very clever use of bits of props and scenery. You’ve got George’s bedroom downstage left, and Maggie’s dressing room downstage right, and a big space to be anything and everything else with a couple of props and furniture whisked in and out as needed. But there’s always that grand sense of glitzy/dirty cabaret that the show keeps coming back to that always stays centre-stage and prominent throughout.
Bugg, being the person behind everything else in Miss Nightgale, knows how to pace the show better than anyone it would seem, as their direction is slick and seamless. Nothing ever seems to drag, and more intimate and deeper moments never feel rushed either. Everything about Miss Nightingale is breezy and brilliant, capturing both hedonism and peril in equal measure. It’s an intoxicating cocktail of great songs, outrageous camp, but also real heart and character.
I don’t think I’ve been this impressed by a cast in a long time. Not only are they terrific actors, they can also sing and play a variety of instruments fantastically well too. Forget your triple threats, Miss Nightingale’s cast are quadruple threats and then some! The standard of their musicianship is absolutely worth commenting on as they feel as taut a musical ensemble as they are an acting one, performing together as a tight and dynamic whole.
Nicholas Coutu-Langmead is so wonderfully British playing the aristocratic entrepreneur, but never without feeling wooden or being too stiff upper lipped. There’s a real sense of grand charisma and character that glows around him at all times. Plus, he plays a viola, so that’s extra brownie-points in my book. Conor O’Kane is great as George, really capturing the frank and deadpan attitude of Polish Jewish humour. O’Kane delivers their spiky retorts with great timing and expression that cause guffaws of laughter through the auditorium. Their chemistry on stage is also incredibly sweet, and they feel very much like a real couple, despite their trials and tribulations, which is what makes you end up wanting them to stay together no matter what.
Stealing the show, however, is Tamar Broadbent as the eponymous Miss Nightingale. Broadbent is as sassy, fabulous, and outrageously good as you can find them, with one hell of a voice that comes into its own in songs like “Mr Follow Spot”, “This Man of Mine”, and “Bluebird”, as well as completely capturing music hall rudeness in the rest of Bugg’s score. Broadbent’s cocksure girl-power is envigorating and unapologetic, but not without a sense of vulnerability and regret of their circumstance, that keeps a bold sense of humanity behind the bullish veneer.
Miss Nightingale blasts the competition out of the water. Ladies, and gentlemen, we have a new British musical victor. Catch it at The Vaults before it Blitzes the West End.