Review: Miss Nightingale – the musical, King’s Head Theatre

“Maybe we should be less Berlin, we need to be more English”

Currently playing in the late night slot at the King’s Head Theatre is new musical Miss Nightingale. It is the baby of Matthew Bugg who wrote the music and lyrics as well as the book and also serves as director here. Set in wartime London 1942, it weaves together the stories of three people, a nurse who longs to become a cabaret star, her Polish-Jewish songwriter and the owner of the club who could make everything happen. But whilst the show has fun charting the sensational rise to fame of the titular Miss Nightingale, it also looks at the experience of homosexual men during wartime, at a time when the relative permissiveness of the 20s and 30s gave way to a dangerous paranoia as songwriter George starts a furtively hidden affair with the aristocratic club owner Sir Frank Connor.

The two strands are woven together throughout in a way which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Bugg has had a great time composing a set of songs for Miss Nightingale which could have come straight out of Cabaret or Chicago and they are delivered with a nice saucy twinkle by Amber Topaz who rises above the limited scope offered by the set most effectively. The more ‘regular’ songs are less memorable it has to be said, though he has also constructed a nice set of trio songs where all three voices are allowed to intertwine and harmonise in an engaging way.

Because many of the songs are performance numbers rather than songs that actually further the narrative, it did feel like there was too much story and not enough room to really portray these relationships as fully as they ought to have been. Too many scenes were far too short and though the performances of Ilan Goodman as the passionate émigré shocked by the changing world around him (and also doubling up as a clarinet player in the band) and Richard Shelton as the society man who will do anything to keep his sexuality secret were persuasive, they were defeated at times by a script that leapt from issue to issue a bit too jerkily.

So a pleasant little curiosity rather than a must-see, but there’s a definite feel of potential about this piece so it could well be worth keeping an eye out to see if it is developed further.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 19th February

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