Theatre programming is incredibly tough at the moment.
On one hand, if you try to experiment with something new and fresh, you may gain a new audience but alienate your regulars and therefore not make much money.
And on the other, if you keep going back to the tried and tested texts, you will be criticised for playing it safe.
Zoë Waterman’s production of Alan Plater’s Blonde Bombshells of 1943 has all of the ingredients guaranteed to get bums on seats, as it is based on a crowd-pleasing text, and it has been produced at the Octagon before.
It got people in because of the hit TV film of the same name, starring Judi Dench.
In a cost-of-living crisis, and instead of sorting this out, we have a PM and an ex-PM battling it out like something from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood pop video, but with Eton-style exchanges, instead of coming to blows, understandably audiences may feel frustrated. And on that level, this play works, as It offers them good old-fashioned escapism.
If you have seen The Commitments or any film whereby someone is looking to form a band or dance troupe.
You know what comes next. We see a variety of auditionees and we get a bit of their backstory along the way.
Throw in some double entendres and you play to a Great British Bake Off audience and then some. In the late Victoria Wood’s capable hands, this would have become a deeply heartfelt show with back stories to die for. And I could imagine Julie Walters slaying the role of band leader Betty, who is using this band to avoid thinking about the war, as are all the women.
But here, the late Alan Plater gives us thinly drawn characters who tell us what motivates them but you don’t always feel that. This is the kind of show where someone drops a (excuse the pun) bombshell and then it just sits there ticking away and it only serves to tell us – this is why they are a bit maudlin, or this is why they giggle loads.
Some of what you see here is dated and feels slightly awkward. The only male band member fancies schoolgirl Elizabeth and she is flattered – this just feels a bit creepy now. The same male character gets dressed up as a woman to avoid joining the army and the gags at his expense, hinting that he is a ‘Nancy boy’ which just doesn’t land well anymore. A play need not be restricted by the time it is set, you can make a statement without resorting to the same old jokes.
Even so, there are many things to like about this sweet-natured show, which aims to get you to ‘pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile.’ The cast for one, as their harmonies take you back in time.
Do you remember when Bette Midler covered the likes of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and gave these songs new life and lots of soul? All of that is evident here and then some. The cast not only sings and performs, but they also play their instruments too. And they are real all-rounders and there are none of those clumsy moments you sometimes see in a show like this, whereby someone is uttering dialogue while holding a trumpet throughout, even as they go to the shops.
Director Zoë Waterman knows that the audience wants jokes to land but that if they don’t, a song will come along any minute and take you away. The show does make some salient points about the role women played in the second world war. And the characters are often feisty, funny and independent. But they also feel like a group of stereotypes there to please, as you have a nun, a sweary one, a no-nonsense one and a naïve one; almost like the Spice Girls with trumpets and blonde wigs.
Lauren Chinery as Elizabeth and Liz has smooth vocals and when she ‘performs’ you believe. Georgina Field plays Betty as a bit too screechy but she has quieter moments, whereby she brings emotion way beyond what is on the page. Verity Bajoria’s May is severely underwritten but once she is on the piano, this actor-musician gives it all she has. Alice McKenna’s Grace brings some much-needed saltiness to the proceedings and Sarah Groarke does similar as the wonderfully witty Vera.
Gleanne Purcell-Brown is delightful as a nun, not quite on the run and Stacey Ghent has superb comic timing as posh Miranda.
She is so good, that she takes this character and makes her fully formed when she could easily just be privileged with the odd funny one-liner. Rory Gradon plays Patrick and he does well, as we do not know his character at all, as there is barely anything on the page. But he brings him to life, regardless.
Carly Whickman has designed some beautiful props including a ticking bomb and they do add talking points when the audience returns following the interval.
Blonde Bombshells of 1943 is a fun show which does what it says on the ration tin. It is light, breezy and entertaining. I just wish the characters were more fleshed out, as it would give the gifted actors more to work with.