Chris Eldon Lee reviews “The Blonde Bombshells of 1943” which is at the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 8th June 2013
Did you hear the one about the nun, the schoolgirl and the army officer?
Well, instead of walking into a pub, they all turn up in the same band room to audition for “The Blonde Bombshells” – Alan Plater’s fictional version of the real-life, all-girl Ivy Benson Band which made musical hay whilst the men were away at war.
Dubbed “the most glamorous band in all the land” they keep losing members to amorous nylon-toting GIs and are desperate to find four new recruits for a BBC engagement that very night in a Northern Coastal Town. (I can’t tell you where, in case Hitler is listening). So anyone with no previous experience is pounced upon, the set is rehearsed to Home Service standards in half a day, and everyone is dead excited about appearing on the wireless. (Take it from me, it’s not always all its cracked up to be).
By now you might be thinking this plot is utterly unrealistic. And you’d be right. It has all the trappings of an MGM show-biz musical (“Let’s do the show right here folks!”) but it doesn’t have the substance.
The opening hour is fascinating. The audition format gives the highly talented cast some great solo opportunities and there’s a huge amount of humour of the ‘poking fun’ kind. The ensemble joke about each other, Adolph Hitler’s musical taste and how even the pork pies smell of fish in Hull. (Damn! I’ve told you). Considerable time is invested in the eight characters and their relationships, and it all feels set for a dramatically fulfilling conclusion.
But, strangely for one Britain’s greatest writers, Plater’s slim plot is pretty much abandoned in the second half. Instead the cast slide into electric pink frocks and peroxide wigs and do their dance hall set. With the whole of World War Two’s social history to draw upon, I was surprised and disappointed more was not made of it all beyond passing references to lost husbands, cowardice and the dilemma of having a good time whilst people are dying.
What we do get instead, though, is an excellent concert of sentimental, speciality and swing numbers that beautifully captures the Big Band era and prompts everyone’s feet into up and down motion. This band could go on the road and do better than Ivy Benson.
Even in these multi-talented times, finding young actresses who can sing, dance and play big brass instruments must be a casting nightmare. Director Kevin Shaw admits as much in the programme. But he’s gone one step further by moulding the seven girls and one lucky lad into a very tight unit indeed.
It’s naughty to pick out individuals but it was good to witness actors I’d previously seen purely in panto being given greater range. Suzi Power was beautifully stuck up (amongst the working wives) as the army girl with a privileged background, instant talent and a full social diary. The humour got quite snidey at times and she delivered her lines of ignorance with an arrogant “it’s not my fault” look – before blowing everyone away on trumpet and trombone.
And it was a delight to see Georgina White in the more demanding schoolmistress bandleader role, struggling with her patience between delivering some very witty Lancashire put downs and devilish sax solos.
Ultimately it’s a crowd-pleasing night of humour, music and nostalgia. Just don’t worry about too much about the plot, that’s all.
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