Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 10th February, 2016
It’s wartime London and posh impresario Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (played by the equally impressively double-barrelled Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) is eager to promote a new singer from Oop North around the city’s nightspots. Dubbed ‘Miss Nightingale’ because of her day job as a nurse, Maggie Brown (Clare Darcy) soon becomes the toast of the town, thanks in no small part to the innuendo-laden ditties penned for her by Polish-Jewish refugee George (Conor O’Kane). But this is not so much the story of Maggie’s rise to the top but rather the love story between the two men, who are forced to keep their relationship clandestine due to the laws of those dark days. Maggie’s spiv boyfriend Tom (Christopher Hogben) gets wind of the affair and tries to blackmail Sir Frank.
With its nightclub setting and the cast playing musical instruments, the show is very much like Cabaret – if it had been written by Victoria Wood. Miss Nightingale is more like Gracie Fields than Sally Bowles and her songs are riddled with saucy seaside postcard humour that is decidedly British. The script too has wit in abundance – book and lyrics are all the work of one man, namely Matthew Bugg (also appearing as Maggie’s soldier brother).
It’s a towering achievement and a joy from start to finish, with Coutu-Langmead spot on as the debonair toff. Equally good is O’Kane as the more overtly emotional George – it’s an excellent ensemble all round but it is Clare Darcy who gets your jaw dropping. She is astonishingly good. We marvel at the length and breadth of her talent. She can sing in a range of styles from Fields to Coward via Dietrich, as well as playing the trumpet, double bass and glockenspiel, and performing the splits on the top of an upright (piano, that is)!
The central love story is sweet and perilous – the three leads are all sympathetic while Hogben’s Tom makes an effective but not overwritten villain. We genuinely care how things will turn out. The score is top drawer; Bugg is a versatile composer and a corker of a lyricist. Particularly entertaining are The Pussy Song, The Sausage Song and I shall never think of the Pied Piper in the same light again thanks to Let Me Play On Your Pipe. There are also searing torch songs as the characters search their souls in-between Maggie’s cheeky show tunes.
Funny, touching and heart-warming, Miss Nightingale is practically perfect in terms of content and execution. Sadly, its stand-up-for-yourself message is all too relevant as we learn that places like Michigan in the so-called Land of the Free is turning its back on homosexuality. The days are still dark.