Miss Nightingale sings a new song at the New Wolsey
- Credit: Archant
It’s 1942. Refugees are fleeing across Europe, the bombs are raining down on London and the safest and most entertaining place to be in an air-raid is in one of the basement clubs in the West End.
This is the backdrop for Matthew Bugg’s reworked burlesque musical Miss Nightingale which made a big impact on audiences last year in a try-out version and now it’s back in a sharper, faster, darker, more dramatic version which composer and creator Matthew Bugg has a greater focus on the story-telling.
“This time around it’s more of an ensemble show. It’s less about having a star centre-stage and more about telling everyone’s story. It’s about creating that atmosphere of the war years and it’s looking at the stories of the people who were caught up in it.
“It’s about people trying to realise ambitions, make new lives for themselves and hang on to family and friends as the bombs fell.”
Directed by Peter Rowe, the musical premiered at the New Wolsey last spring before heading off on an extensive tour during the course of which Matthew took the opportunity to revise certain scenes, add new songs and restructure the show.
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Watching rehearsals it’s clear that the new version of Miss Nightingale has a much more authentic cabaret feel to the performance rather than being a contemporary musical with a war-time cabaret setting.
He said that this time they are dispensing with contemporary lighting effects and radio mikes in order to create genuine 1940s cabaret club atmosphere.
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“We found that by stripping it back, it creates a more intimate feel for the show. It draws the audience in. The audience feels more a part of what is happening on stage and that means that they have an emotional investment in the characters and in the story.
“It’s about crafting a story, refining the show, finding out what works best and as you do this something magical appears. We didn’t want to make it like any other modern musical. We wanted to create something that was unique, that had atmosphere and created a sense of time and place – and also told a good story.”
Matthew has been working on the show, off and on, for ten years, developing it and refining it, ever since he struck on the idea of bringing the world of these underground war-time cabaret clubs to the stage.
He said that he didn’t want to just recreate the feel of these clubs but he wanted to meet the people who performed and attended these risqué venues. These people had stories to tell. At the time Britain was balanced on a knife-edge and these people were living on the edge of the knife edge.
Miss Nightingale tells the story of Maggie Brown, a northern lass, who works by day as a nurse in a London hospital, but dreams of becoming a nightclub singer.
She is helped in her quest by songwriter friend George Nowodny. 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.
These venues had a daring, hedonistic quality about them. Populated by the rich and the beautiful – often young officers in town on leave and 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.
It was also a strangely classless world where the Bright Young Things of London’s privileged party scene would rub shoulders with working class singers, dancers and variety stars.
It was also the heyday of burlesque – a mixture of song, dance, comedy, magic, satire and striptease – although the emphasis was on the tease rather than the stripping.
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.
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.
Matthew says that for the new version of the show he and Peter have put the actor-musician dimension into the heart of the piece. All the actors are now also performers which gives the show some added punch.
Towards the end of the show Maggie and Sir Frank even have a musical duel to resolve their increasingly frosty relationship.
“I think people who saw it last time will see a tremendously different show this time. We are so lucky to have the New Wolsey as producing partners and Pete as director. As with any new show there is a period of refining it. Just tweaking it and adjusting it – getting it right. Obviously we opened at the New Wolsey last year and then took it on the road and we learnt such a lot.
“With musicals, they are especially hard to get right. It’s a question of balance between music and action and what sort of music. Also there’s the age-old topic of how much information do you give away and when. So there’s a lot to get your head around.
“Also you want to make sure that you are taking the audience with you, that they are not being left behind. The way that the music interacts with and relates to the story, it’s a challenge to pitch it exactly right. It’s a fast-paced piece but you have to trust the audience. You have to have confidence that they will stay with you.
“Big producers like Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd-Webber solve that problem by having three or four months of previews but we don’t have that luxury. We made significant changes throughout our 12 week tour last year and then when we gave off the road I sat down and used our experience of what worked and what didn’t to reshape the show.
“We’ve added five new songs, it’s about half-an-hour shorter, much tighter, much funnier, more focussed. We’ve lost nothing in terms of story, we’re just telling it better.”
He said that one of the biggest decisions they took after the last tour was to jettison 21st century technology and embrace the way that a show would have been staged in the 1940s. “As soon as we did that the show snapped into focus.”
He said that also liberated him to make the arrangements much more interesting. Whereas last time everything was played by the full band, now they are mixing full band, with solo piano and mixing and matching instruments, which he says makes the show sonically more inventive.
It also means that they can mix the sound of the modern West End musical with bawdy German-style cabaret, quieter, more introspective solo songs, tongue-in-cheek English music hall numbers, like the newly-penned Sausage Song, and performance numbers.
“Musically there is much more colour this time around. We’ve got ukuleles, accordion, saxophone, clarinet – some songs are sung a capella. It means that stylistically things are much clearer and the whole thing has a much stronger sense of character.
“It feels much more like a cabaret piece now.”
Both Pete Rowe and Matthew agree that the short three week rehearsal period has been aided by the fact that this group of actor-musicians already know one another and so much of the tentative first week nerves have been done away with.
Playing the trumpet-wielding Maggie Brown for this latest incarnation of the show is Jill Cardo who worked with Matthew on a Northern Broadsides production of The Government Inspector two years ago and has also worked with Pete on A Chorus of Disapproval at the New Wolsey. She also trained with Ipswich-born Harry Waller who is playing George Nowodny.
Tomm Coles, who plays Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe, is the only returning cast member from the previous tour and also has worked with Pete Rowe before on Sugar and Adam Langstaff, who plays Tom Fuller, was part of the New Wolsey production of Our House last year.
Jill said: “It was lovely to walk into a room where the company were all ready comfortable with one another. The communication was there right from the beginning and I think Pete has a way of making everyone feel very comfortable, so you can work in a very collaborative way without worrying what anyone else is going to think if you make a suggestion.
“Both Matthew and Pete make is easy for you to say: ‘Look I am really struggling with this, or I don’t understand what I am supposed to be doing here.’ And we all pitch in to make the show the best it can be.”
Watching them at work is a revelation as they work through the musical dual towards the end of the show and as they replay and refine the scene, it becomes clear that one musical passage isn’t needed and Matthew swiftly moves in to rewrite the score on the move and allows the scene to proceed to its climax in a much faster fashion.
“There’s an incredible bond that’s formed when you make music together. It’s a relationship and you listen to one another and in this case, it became clear very quickly that one piece I had written wasn’t needed. It was merely marking time and Jill and Tomm were driving the scene forward and we needed to get to the climax quicker, so it went. That’s what rehearsals are all about.”
Harry Waller, who spent last Christmas with Eastern Angles and the Brontes of Dunwich Heath (and Cliff) is thrilled to be in a show that takes him back to his home town.
“It’s also terrific being part of a company which allows you to explore your role. I have been part of companies where it all laid down in tablets of stone and the director says: ‘you have to do it like this.’ But, both Pete and Matthew are great at allowing you to feel your way and have a say in how things develop which is great. It’s a very collaborative process and the show’s better as a result.”
For Matthew, dialogue and communication lies at the very heart of Miss Nightingale. Although Maggie is the title character, the dream which drives the show belongs to George. He wants to recreate in London that sense of permissiveness that was part of his world when he lived in Berlin. The bawdy songs and the burlesque are more than a naughty night at the theatre. They are a plea for tolerance.
Miss Nightingale runs at The New Wolsey Theatre from March 27-April 5.