It’s fascinating to be able to revisit shows along their developmental cycle. I first saw Miss Nightingale in its initial chamber-musical incarnation at the King’s Head back in 2011 and since then, it has become a fully-fledged piece which has toured the UK extensively. This residency at the Vaults marks the show’s fifth production and the first time I’ve been able to revisit and reassess Matthew Bugg’s actor-musician musical.
Set in London in 1942, it relays two parallel and interconnected narratives – the metamorphosis of nurse Maggie Brown to fresh new cabaret star Miss Nightingale, and the illicit gay love affair between her Polish-Jewish émigré songwriter and the upper-class war hero-turned-nightclub-impresario who is behind their rise. As bombs continue to fall on London, contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality threaten to cause no less potent explosions.
The cabaret setting allows for Bugg to stretch his songwriting muscle with a range of bawdy numbers – ‘Suasage Song’, ‘Let Me Play On Your Pipe’, ‘The Pussy Song’ – which are delivered with the requisite glint in the eye from Tamar Broadbent. And his book songs also have a beautifully yearning sense of romance (‘Mister Nightingale’) and tenderness (‘Understudy’) about them, which makes it a most enjoyable show to listen to.
Dramatically, it doesn’t always quite carry the same charge. Conor O’Kane’s nerdish but passionate George and Nicholas Coutu-Langmead’s starched but softening Frank connects well in their scenes, this is a show unafraid to be romantic instead of raunchy. But splitting the focus of the show between them and Miss Nightingale herself reduces its impact, particularly as Broadbent struggles to flesh out her character meaningfully in her straight scenes.
The attention to detail in Carla Goodman’s set design, and the larger design for the production as a whole – from the posters decorating the wall to the cute ration-book programme and chocolate bars – is admirably done, and there’s no denying the quiet charm of the show. I wonder if I’ll get the chance to come back again in six more years!