Miss Nightingale nurses hopes for a new career in burlesque
- Credit: Archant
During the height of The Blitz they were considered the safest places in London – the myriad of 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 punch-drunk refugees from the war ministry – these youthful partygoers wanted to lose themselves in an exciting make-believe world, because no-one could be sure if tomorrow would come.
If the clientele was made up of Bright Young Things, then the performers were drawn from all walks of life – the singers, comedians and cabaret artistes were talented but often classless, and able to mix with everyone.
This was the heyday of the traditional burlesque show – a mixture of song, dance, comedy, magic, satire and risqué striptease – with an emphasis on the tease rather than the stripping.
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This heady mixture of ingredients is present in Miss Nightingale – a burlesque musical drama which opens next week at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.
Directed by the New Wolsey’s Peter Rowe, Miss Nightingale is the debut musical by composer/choreographer Matthew Bugg.
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Whereas a revue theatre like The Windmill 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.
The show 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.
For Matthew Bugg and Pete Rowe it’s a show about atmosphere. It’s about recreating a time of exotic entertainment set against a world of danger and uncertainty. Although the champagne may have bubbled and fizzed at night – thanks to the black market – during the day there was rationing and deprivation. The burlesque clubs were an escape from the horrors of war and a chance for those with talent to shine.
Certainly in the play we see Maggie Brown, played by burlesque star Amber Topaz, transform herself from an aspiring singer to a West End sensation through a series of auditions and by teaming up with impresario and nightclub owner Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe.
It’s a world which fascinates writer and musical director Matthew Bugg and he has devoted the past eight years to licking this show into shape. It’s been a real labour of love and has been helped over the last couple of hurdles by friend and director Pete Rowe.
Although, originally from Sheffield, Matthew has had a long association with both the New Wolsey and the Colchester Mercury theatres – having worked as musical director at both. Miss Nightingale had its first outing as an abridged production at the Lowry centre in Salford in 2011. This latest version at The New Wolsey will be the show’s premiere as a full-scale, full-length production.
In a London rehearsal room, Matthew has just finishing re-writing part of a musical number which hasn’t been flowing as well as he had imagined. A quick consultation with actor Ilan Goodman, a tweak of the lyrics and music, and everything is going great guns again.
It’s a wonderful way to see how new shows are tailored and fine-tuned during the rehearsal process – particularly if the author is present, playing piano.
For Matthew, staging this show is a dream come true. “I have been writing music for directors for other shows for 20 years now, that’s nothing new, but this is the first show I’ve written the book for, written the text, so it’s a big departure in that way.
“Also, it’s not a process that came easily. There are lots of different ways of writing. Some people are faced with a blank canvas and they sketch out a rough outline and then colour it in. For me it was much more like sculpting. I had to carve out a show, then shape it, craft it and whittle it down and slowly reveal what’s inside.”
Matthew said that for him Miss Nightingale – a clever reference to nursing and singing – has been a complex voyage of discovery. He freely admits that when he started writing he had no idea where the show was headed or how it would be staged.
“Amazing as it seems now, the first draft wasn’t set in the 1940s, wasn’t about burlesque and was for one person. You could say that the show has imposed its own personality on me as we have gone along.
“You discover it during the collaborative process and you discover it with the people you work with.”
Peter Rowe added: “Matthew told me very early on that he wanted to write a musical with more story than most musicals had, and that adds to the complexity of the development process.”
So is it a musical or a play with music? Matthew smiled at the distinction. “As a dancer who became a choreographer who became a musician who is now a writer and producer I resist categories. I find that the people who interest me most are the ones who live in the border territories. I like it when people aren’t one thing or another.
“Is it a musical? Is it a play? I don’t know and really I don’t care. I just want people to enjoy it as a good piece of work.”
Peter Rowe became involved when Matthew sent him an early draft and he conducted a rehearsed reading with the company from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
He said: “It’s true what Matthew says about whittling away at a script until it’s right. I told him on the first day of rehearsal this is the first production I have directed which has Draft 26 written on the cover of the script.
“But the work has been worthwhile because the action really flows. We were talking earlier about whether it is a musical or not. I think that the music in the play works on lots of different levels. There are quite a lot of performance numbers where we see Miss Nightingale perform her burlesque act; we also see numbers in rehearsal; but also there are ballads which are about internal thoughts, and in some numbers we have the internal thoughts of a variety of different characters. Throughout the play, the music moves in and out of those modes. You get some performance songs which are much more like a traditional musical and others you are getting character information, and others are in a play setting. You are in a rehearsal room and the characters are rehearsing a song.”
The star of play is Amber Topaz, a leading burlesque performer who started off in traditional musicals – she was part of the Les Miserables cast for a year – before finding her home in burlesque and cabaret.
Speaking to her, it’s clear she is thrilled at landing a role which satisfies both sides of her personality. “It’s great for me. It’s a perfect combination – the dream job. British burlesque, if it’s done properly, has a narrative. Every song tells a story and this stays true to that.”
She says the current appeal of burlesque owes much to the reasons why it became popular in the 1930s, ’40s and ’ 50s. In tough times people need glamour, they need escape, a little bit of naughtiness; they need to feel human.
Ilan Goodman said that his character, George, can readily relate to that.
“He has fled from the Nazi regime in Berlin, having lived there for ten years. His dream is to recreate the Germans’ previous sense of tolerance, permissiveness, debauchery and fun; bring that sense of glamour to London, glamour that was so much a part of Berlin in the ’30s.
“All the music he writes for Miss Nightingale has that seductiveness about it, but it is also very satirical. All the numbers are in character. It could be Noel Coward or Churchill or Marlene Dietrich, but they are delivered with a tremendous sense of fun and bawdiness – and they are great lively songs.
“I think there is a plea for tolerance which lies at the heart of the play. Certainly George’s dream is to recreate that sense of tolerance in this world of burlesque and nightclubs.”
Matthew knew Amber Topaz from the time that they were at dance school together and sent her the script, and she immediately fell in love with the part.
Amber’s own journey into the world of burlesque came when she did a modelling job for vintage clothing. “It came about by accident. I was in Les Mis. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t really enjoying the show. I felt I was trapped on a treadmill. As an actor you are constantly auditioning, you keep getting rejected, and I wasn’t having a great time.
“But, being creative, I thought I would take charge of my own career. I wrote some songs, recorded a demo and went to a photographer to take a picture for the cover.
“The photographer asked me to model for him, I was extraordinarily flattered and he took these wonderful photographs, and this went on for a couple of years.
“He was really into burlesque and the history of burlesque. I didn’t know anything about it and he told me: ‘You should do burlesque. It’s you.’ I tried it and it was such an easy transition, because it is me.
“A lot of burlesque artistes take on a character and become someone else. I just become more of me and I find I can get away with more.
“I don’t do the glamorous striptease – that’s an American invention anyway – I just send things up with a smile and a wink because that’s who I am. I have always believed that funny people are sexy, so here I am.” Matthew said that creating an atmosphere for the show was very important and this was conjured up in the staging.
“The play travels between a lot of locations quite rapidly and Carla Goodman, who has designed the show, has done a wonderful job creating a setting which tells everything about the feel and the atmosphere without tying everything down to specific locations. It’s a very free, very cabaret space.
“It links with Brecht, who was thinking at that same time about how to present theatre differently to an audience. So there’s an authenticity to the way we are approaching it which is rooted in the cabaret tradition.”
Pete added: “In those initial discussions with Carla we said that the way to look at it was as if they had made a cabaret of their own story.
“We are presenting the show as if they are telling their own story in their own style. It’s fiction presented as autobiography. We have to move very fluidly and easily between a wide variety of locations with the minimum of props and scenery.”
For Matthew, Miss Nightingale is all about character – the character of the show as much as the people who populate the story.
“When I started writing this I wanted to create something that was intellectually challenging for me, that used all the techniques of musical theatre – in the way that it can move you in ways which other theatre finds hard to do – and then to inspire and make people think. I wanted to create something that was complex and rich and makes for an entertaining night at the theatre.”
Pete added that often the real substance of the play remains unsaid.
“At the heart of the play we have a triangular relationship between Maggie, George and Frank. But, an awful lot of the piece is about what can and can’t be said – what’s in the shadows and what’s in the light.
“But that is storytelling heaven, because there’s great potential for cross-wires and misunderstanding, which makes for a thrilling evening as you watch these people negotiate their way through their lives, trying to work out what their relationship should be with each other.
“It’s rich territory for me as a director but also rich territory musically, because what can’t be said as dialogue can be expressed as thought in song.
“There’s a tremendous sense of suppressed tension throughout the piece because there are secret lives being led and we are never entirely sure how it is going to be resolved. It’s rich and satisfyingly complex stuff.”
n Miss Nightingale runs at the New Wolsey Theatre from May 2-11.