BLONDE BOMBSHELLS OF 1943
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 17th May, 2013
Alan Plater’s ‘play with music’ has all the hallmarks of his familiar TV works: sardonic North country humour, cheeky innuendo, sparking dialogue and likable characters. The story concerns a day in the life of Betty, leader of a dance band, auditioning new players for a big gig later that night. Because of the seductive techniques of American soldiers over here and over-sexed, Betty’s band, the Blonde Bombshells, has a faster turnover of members than the Sugababes.
The play begins with a prologue – a girl from today in hoodie and Converse tells us this is about a ‘hell of a day’ her grandmother spent during the war, a day in which she learned about love, betrayal, sex and a whole list of things, thereby cranking up our expectations. It’s a way of framing the narrative as a story, perhaps a tall one, so we accept the conflation of events and the speed at which they happen.
The action takes place in a bombed-out rehearsal space. The female ensemble, which increases one member at a time, is not only amusing in a deadpan, not quite Victoria Wood skit fashion, but they are all exceptional musicians, playing live. It is the songs that lift the show – most of them familiar – out of the ordinary – or rather, I should say, the performance of them. The melancholic trumpet playing (of Sarah Groarke’s Vera), for example, is a bittersweet counterpoint to the wisecracks and cheeriness of these wartime women.
First to audition is schoolgirl Liz (Carla Freeman) who plays a nifty clarinet and appears to become a virtuoso on the saxophone in the course of one day… Next up is the excellent Katharine Moraz as Lily, a nun with a nice line in cheeky George Formby songs. These two characters are the innocents. The third auditionee is a bit of a posh tart, Miranda, (Suzi Power) like a young Joan Collins but with a sultry singing voice. These three are recruited by the worldly-wise Betty and rehearsals begin.
Along comes the only male in the cast, Chris Grahamson as a drummer with a secret – This leads to some rather low-key Some Like It Hot shenanigans and also teases out the darker side of the situation.
The play is short on dramatic tension but more than compensates with warmth, heart and humanity. You simply enjoy being in the company of these characters and delight in their musicianship, whether you know the songs or not. Director Kevin Shaw has adapted his Oldham Coliseum production to fit in the New Vic’s arena, which means the performers do a lot of rotating on the spot, but it works very well. The singing is lovely, the playing divine. Marianne Benedict is May, on piano – we don’t find out much about her but she can certainly tickle the ivories. Natasha White is very funny as Grace on double bass, the most deadpan of the group, using jokes to plaster over her personal tragedy. Georgina White presides as bandleader Betty, bossy but self-deprecating – she hints at personal sacrifice but keeps up morale, which is the aim of the game, after all. But, in this thoroughly excellent troupe, the stand-outs for me are Katharine Moraz’s enthusiastic nun and Sarah Groarke’s Vera, for her earthy characterisation and her soul-searing trumpet.
You come away thoroughly entertained – this is not a show about the hardship of war, but it is touched upon. You consider how people appreciated what they had back then and made the best of things, in the shadow of German bombers. These days when we have everything and take it for granted, our humour is less generous in spirit and our attitudes complacent. This show made me nostalgic for a time I didn’t live through and grateful for growing up in peace time.