Miss Nightingale is back on the theatrical front lines at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
- Credit: Archant
The war-time musical Miss Nightingale returns home to Suffolk with a brand new production.
Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to new director Karen Simpson and show creator Matthew Bugg about the continued appeal of this song-filled drama.
Miss Nightingale, a bitter-sweet musical, set in the risqué world of London nightclubs during the Second World War returns to Suffolk, the county of its birth, for what its creator insists will be the very last time.
Part play, part burlesque show, Miss Nightingale has been developed, over the past decade, by former Colchester Mercury and New Wolsey Theatre choreographer and musical director Matthew Bugg.
It has toured the country twice after being given development support by New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe and now returns to the county by popular demand for one last hurrah.
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“Every time we do it, the show is different,” Matthew says. “The book and the dialogue is slightly different, the emphasis changes – it’s changed again this time – the cast is different, some of the songs are different.
“Each time we do the show we learn something new about it, and so it influences how we do the show next time. It takes a lot of work to get a musical, particularly a dramatic musical, exactly right and I hope Suffolk audiences have enjoyed seeing the show develop over time.
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“This time the tone of the show is very different from the two productions we did at the New Wolsey. The interval is in a different place, which shifts the focus of the story and the whole feel of the show, particularly the second half. We also have four new songs, I can’t stop writing new songs, and have brought back one of the songs from the 2013 production which we dropped for the 2014 tour.”
This time Matthew is taking the play back to its roots by involving Karen Simpson, artistic director of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Karen and Matthew were working together in Sheffield when Matthew first had the idea and Karen had the honour of being the first person to read the first draft of the script. “The script was a world away from what it is now,” she says, “Matthew originally conceived the show on an epic scale and it covered two world wars and the depression. But, over the years he’s refined it, focussed on the characters, focussed on telling the story and he’s created a brilliant show.”
Karen pauses for a second and then adds an enthusiastic post-script “and the songs display a smattering of genius… and they keep coming”.
Miss Nightingale takes place in 1942. The Luftwaffe is still bombing London on a nightly basis and the safest place to be is in one of the capital’s basement cabaret clubs.
Not only is it the safest place to be in an air raid, it’s also the raciest, most entertaining place to be as the stage is filled with good-looking performers delivering morale- boosting songs filled with provocative double entendres.
There was a myriad small nightclubs and underground theatres that honeycombed their way round Soho and Piccadilly in London’s West End.
They provided a welcome touch of colour and glamour in an otherwise austere, grey world while Britain fought for its life as Hitler stood poised to invade from across the Channel.
These venues had a daring, hedonistic quality about them. Populated by the rich and the beautiful – often young officers in town on leave, and with punchdrunk refugees from the war ministry – these youthful partygoers wanted to lose themselves in an exciting make-believe world, because no-one could be sure that tomorrow would dawn.
If the clientele was made up of Bright Young Things, then the performers were drawn from all walks of life… from the working classes and from the refugees who had fled persecution, not just in Hitler’s Germany but from right across Europe.
This complex, colourful collage of characters and storylines provides the drama and the heart of the story and is the reason why this show, for all its burlesque trappings, keeps being revived and refined.
Karen Simpson believes that it is a show of real substance. “His skill is never losing focus about what the story is about. For all the entertaining songs and the cabaret acts which populate the show, he has kept honing and refining the story and that is what gives the show its heart. It is about people.”
Matthew said that this latest revival is genuinely back by public demand. “I thought we had done with it. We had toured it around the country three times in various forms, played to 22,000 people over the years and we thought that everyone who wanted to see it had seen it. But, last year I found that theatres kept phoning me up and asking if they could book the show.
“The first inquiries I said: ‘Sorry we’re not touring it any more but as more theatres contacted me, I thought ‘This is crazy, we can’t turn this number of potential bookings down, particularly as several of the theatres were large venues that we had wanted to book before but they already had their programme sorted.
“The great thing this time is that they are approaching us because the word of mouth from the previous tours is spreading, which is great. So we reworked the book again, incorporating things we learned on the last tour, got in contact with Karen and set about re-inventing this amazing show one more time.”
Although the show mirrors the world of cabaret, burlesque and striptease, it’s a show that is more about tease than stripping.
Whereas a revue theatre like The Windmill, which formed the inspiration for Mrs Henderson Presents, based itself on the statuesque stage shows of 1930s Paris, London’s underground nightclubs sought their inspiration from the cabarets of Weimar Berlin – a world immortalised by Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and revived by Kander and Ebb in Cabaret.
Miss Nightingale tells the story of nurse and wannabe singer Maggie Brown and her songwriter friend George Nowodny. Maggie is desperate to make it on stage as a singer and performer. George is a Jewish refugee, recently arrived in London, and is anxious to replicate the decadent world of the German nightclubs in stiff and starchy London. However, in wartime, London may not be as uptight as he remembers.
Maggie and George’s plans take a giant leap forward when they run into showbiz entrepreneur Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe who sees in Maggie that certain someone who could give his ailing club a much-needed lift.
At first everything goes swimmingly, Maggie becomes a huge draw but war clouds and personality clashes threaten to destroy everything she has achieved.
For Matthew, one of the real joys of the show is that it is a completely original show. It’s not a juke-box musical built around pre-existing songs and the story manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.
The effects of war and refugees continue to make the nightly news, so the story, although set 80 years ago, still holds a mirror up to the world in which we live today.
For Karen, what attracts her to Miss Nightingale is the fact that despite the showbiz background and the wartime setting, it is still very much a love story.
“And the songs inform the story. They’re not just put in the show to get a laugh, they are an integral fabric of the show. They are funny, they are moving and I love the way that new songs are introduced to keep the show fresh.
“I love the way that the show is always being re-invented. We have a totally new cast, which always brings something new to a production and I am glad that I didn’t see either of the New Wolsey’s productions so I am approaching this based purely on the latest script Matthew has produced and my memories of the first draft I read 13 years ago.
“When I first started looking at directing this latest production I said to Matthew do you want me to recreate the show as it was before. West End shows do that all the time. They recast a show and the resident director’s job is make sure it is absolutely the same as it was before.
“Matthew didn’t want that. He wanted a new challenge. He wanted a fresh pair of eyes looking at the show, asking awkward questions and bringing their own vision to it.
“I told him, don’t tell me if I am making exactly the same choices as the New Wolsey – I’d like to know afterwards but don’t tell me while we’re making the show.
“Every actor, every director comes to a show with different ideas, different life experiences and it affects how you make a show. An actor has to find their own way into a character and as a woman I am sure I see the show differently to Peter (Rowe) and Matthew. The emphasis changes when a woman encounters certain scenes and that’s good because it means even if you have seen the show before, this will still be a new experience.”
Miss Nightingale is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from September 30 to October 3