Review: After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The aptly named Time Productions have set themselves an ambitious challenge in staging Ian Grant’s After the Ball, which covers several decades in the life of one family. Opening just before World War 1, it’s the story of William and Blanche, a young couple brought together by friends and shared political views, but with little else in common. Then, despite having spoken out frequently against the war, William voluntarily joins the army and heads to Belgium, where he falls in love with another woman. Back home, meanwhile, Blanche is left alone to raise their daughter, and even after he comes back she’s never able to forgive her husband for his betrayal.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

The play, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, opened on International Women’s Day, and at the start there are some promising discussions about votes for women that suggest we’re about to see a play with some strong female characters. And admittedly Blanche’s friend Margery, who chooses not to marry and later goes off to travel the world on her own, fits the bill – as does daughter Joyce, who grows up to be a leading light in the Labour Party and refuses to let a cheating husband get in her way.

Blanche, on the other hand, loses any independent spirit she once had the minute she gets married, spends their first few months together pleading with William not to go to war – and when he does, she ends up a sad, bitter woman stuck in a loveless marriage and unable to let go of the past. We don’t get to see how she copes without him because we’re in Belgium watching William, first getting wounded and then having an affair. On his return, any hope we might have that Blanche somehow gets the last laugh gradually fades as the same conversations and recriminations come up again and again. The result is, sadly, a script that becomes repetitive and characters that begin to feel a bit annoying; we even go back to the start of their marriage at one point in Act 2, for no obvious reason, to replay the argument again.

The same actors play the characters throughout their lives, which means in some cases they’re faced with the challenging task of playing both a 20-something and an 80-something. Stuart Fox is poignantly impressive as a fragile, elderly William, suffering with dementia and lost in fragmented recollections of his life – but both he and Julia Watson as Blanche struggle to differentiate clearly between their younger and older selves, and it’s down to the other characters and the historical context to help us locate where we are in the story. There is, however, a welcome injection of energy from Emily Tucker as Joyce, determined to live life on her own terms despite her mother’s disapproval, and Elizabeth Healey is a refreshing voice of reason as both Margery and Marguerite.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

In a programme note, writer Ian Grant explains that After the Ball is “a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma … of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point … of female liberation and political emancipation”. That’s a lot to tackle in two hours, but unfortunately we never really get to explore any of it in much depth. Nor do we feel much connection to the characters – again, with the possible exception of Joyce – which means a twist ending has far less impact than it should. All in all, sadly After the Ball is an interesting idea that begins well but never quite delivers on its early promise.

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Review: Miss Nightingale at The Vaults

Matthew Bugg’s acclaimed WW2 musical Miss Nightingale may just have found its spiritual home at The Vaults. Entering the warren of dimly lit underground tunnels, we’re handed a chocolate bar and a programme designed to look like a ration book before stepping into the auditorium, which could very easily be an air raid shelter. As trains rumble in and out of Waterloo Station above our heads, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine what we’re actually hearing is bombs falling, and it’s almost a surprise to emerge into Launcelot Street and find all the buildings intact and ourselves back in the 21st century.

Photo credit: Robert Workman
Miss Nightingale does many things all at once. It’s a touching story of forbidden love, a social commentary on gay and women’s rights, and a feel-good (and really quite naughty) musical. By rights it probably should feel like a bit of a jumble, and it’s true that some elements of the plot end up a little sketchy through sheer lack of time – yet it’s impossible not to get swept up in the charm and sheer joy of it all.

It’s 1942, and war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) hires Maggie Brown (Tamar Broadbent), a feisty nurse from oop north, to perform in his new club. The two quickly grow close, but Maggie’s already in a relationship with dodgy wheeler-dealer Tom (Niall Kerrigan) – and besides, it’s her friend and songwriter George (Conor O’Kane), a Polish Jew still in mourning for both his lost family and his beloved Berlin, who’s secretly captured Frank’s heart.

Forced by the law and social expectations to keep their illicit love affair under wraps, the two men end up embroiling both themselves and Maggie in a complex tangle of broken hearts and false hopes – all the while maintaining a facade of determined jollity in order to keep up morale. This is Britain, after all, and the show must go on, whatever dramas may be unfolding behind the scenes.

And there’s no doubt Miss Nightingale‘s outrageous comedy numbers know how to lift the spirits. Laden with every innuendo you can think of – and a few that you might not – they provide welcome light relief from the intensity of Frank and George’s tempestuous love affair, and particularly from the disturbing realisation that less than 100 years ago, gay couples still risked social ruin or even prison just for the chance to be together. (And worse – there’s a moment in Act 2 when George reflects on the unfairness of being persecuted in the country he came to seeking refuge; as recent events have shown all too clearly, these words could just as easily be spoken today.)

Photo credit: Robert Workman
The whole cast of actor-musicians are clearly in their element during the rude bits (and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t get a bit of a buzz out of a song whose main lyric is, “You’ve got to get your sausage where you can”?) but Matthew Bugg’s score demands a softer side too, particularly from the show’s three main stars, all of whom impress with their powerful vocals. Though best known as a comedian, Tamar Broadbent reveals she can do serious just as successfully, while Nicholas Coutu-Langmead and Conor O’Kane maintain an ideal balance in their blossoming on-stage relationship, with Frank’s timidity and stiff upper lip perfectly countered by George’s volatility and flamboyance.

This is the fifth production of Miss Nightingale, and it’s not hard to see why the show keeps returning – it really is the best of British, in more ways than one. Yes, it’s a huge amount of fun, but there’s a more serious point to all this. We might not be at war any more, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still battles to be fought – and in an increasingly troubled world, this show reminds us that it’s as important as ever to stand up and be counted.

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Interview: Tobias Oliver, Miss Nightingale

Since its premiere in 2011, Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale has toured five times, earned numerous five-star reviews, been named one of the Guardian’s Top 50 Shows of 2016 and been voted into’s Top 100 Greatest Musicals of All Time. And now it’s finally coming back to London, with a two-month run at The Vaults from 30th March.

Miss Nightingale is not your usual musical theatre show,” explains co-producer (with writer and composer Matthew Bugg), Tobias Oliver. “It’s set in World War Two London and challenges you to stand up for yourself, to fight for what you believe in and to resist prejudice in all forms. But it does this whilst entertaining the socks off you with a gripping narrative, tender love story and a load of absolutely brilliant songs, some of which are very, very naughty! One of my favourite reviews on our last tour said it was like, ‘Cabaret – as if written by Victoria Wood.’ I really love that description.”

It’s a long-awaited return to London for Miss Nightingale. “We’ve wanted to bring the show back to London for several years and have had a number of offers but they never felt quite right,” says Tobias. “We aren’t your typical West End show and we wanted to find the right venue. When the opportunity of transferring to The Vaults came up we jumped at it. It’s just perfect and almost feels as if it were made for Miss Nightingale, particularly as all the action in the show takes place in London. And I grew up in London and it’s where I started going to and falling in love with theatre, so performing the show here is always going to be extra special for me.”

What is it that makes The Vaults an ideal venue for the show? “It’s one of the most exciting venues in the capital right now,” says Tobias. “The fact that it feels like a cross between a theatre, an illegal drinking den, a subterranean jazz club and an air-raid shelter really couldn’t be better. Miss Nightingale is set in 1942 and much of the action centres around a smoky, underground cabaret club in the heart of war-torn London. The Vaults is absolutely the perfect fit for us – and the fact that you can hear the rumble of trains and other sounds of city life sets the scene perfectly of life carrying on regardless.”

The show’s changed a lot since it was first performed six years ago: “The 2011 production was a small-scale, chamber version of the show with a cast of just three. The response was fantastic, we were the best-selling late night show at the King’s Head and the show went on to tour the UK five times. However, back in 2011 as soon as we started performing the show in front of an audience we knew there were things we wanted to change and creases to be ironed out. There’s always a missing link in making theatre until you get it in front of an audience. This is why all big-budget shows have extensive development periods, a number of workshops, lengthy previews and out-of-town runs to smooth out the glitches and fix any problems.

“So we did some fairly hefty re-writes and added several new songs before we presented the show again in a full-scale production that toured in 2013. And we’ve continued to refine the show for each new outing. I guess anyone who saw the show back in 2011 is in for a bit of a surprise when they come to watch it at The Vaults, and it will be fascinating to see their reaction.”

In addition to his co-producing responsibilities, Tobias also has a small  role in the show as well as playing double bass – and he has nothing but praise for his fellow cast members. “Our cast are seriously talented. Not only do they act, sing and dance, but they also play all the musical instruments! And there is something that is incredibly exciting about working with actor-musicians who are at the very top of their game. We spend a lot of time looking out for and casting the right people. Our two leading men, Conor O’Kane and Nicholas Coutu-Langmead have such great chemistry on-stage and it’s really beautiful watching them fall in love every night.

“We also have a couple of new cast members, including the wonderful, award-winning singer-songwriter Tamar Broadbent making her musical theatre debut as ‘Miss Nightingale’. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see her perform her comedy shows then you know she’s a star in the making.”

Though described in one of its many rave reviews as “raucously funny”, the show also has a serious point to make. “If anything the show seems more relevant than ever in 2017 what with recent events both in the UK and overseas,” says Tobias. “We don’t know what will happen to LGBT people’s rights after Brexit because much of the protection we have gained against discrimination came from the EU. The far right is on the rise across Europe with a particularly regressive, homophobic platform. Then there’s the frankly terrifying, virulently anti-LGBT agenda of the Trump government in the United States. It’s truly frightening. Now more than ever the arts and performance – satire in particular – seem to be powerful ways to offer an alternative to these messages of hate and division.”

Finally, what’s one thing Tobias wants audiences to know before we see the show – and one word he’d like us to use to describe it afterwards? “Blimey, that’s a tricky question to end with! I want people to know that Miss Nightingale has absolutely nothing to do with Florence Nightingale – it’s set in World War Two, not the Crimean War! And I’d like them to describe the show as ‘life-affirming’. Does a hyphenated word count?”

Miss Nightingale is at The Vaults from 30th March to 20th May.

Review: Mrs Henderson Presents

The Windmill Theatre in Soho is a little piece of London’s history, for two main reasons: its proud slogan, ‘We Never Closed’, and – probably even more famously – its naked ladies. Mrs Henderson Presents, originally a movie starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, tells the story of the Windmill, its girls and its eccentric owner in a feel-good, high-energy spectacular that makes you feel proud to be British.

It’s hard to top Dame Judi in pretty much anything, obviously, but Tracie Bennett’s Mrs Henderson is a delight: her prim exterior hides a dry wit and occasional coarseness that’s all the more brilliant for its unexpected appearances. And she can belt out a tune as well, but then we knew that already. The relationship between Mrs Henderson and her manager, Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew), is lovely to watch – though they drive each other crazy, they also develop a strong and loyal friendship, and it’s not surprising to learn that she left the theatre to him when she died in 1944.

Mrs Henderson Presents
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Now, let’s talk naked ladies. The Windmill Girls were known for their nude tableaux vivants, which had to be motionless to get around the Lord Chamberlain and his aversion to wobbly bits (I suspect it may have been a little more complex than that in reality, but let’s move on). Even so, the brave ladies in Terry Johnson’s production are on full display – albeit very tastefully presented – and you have to admire their nerve, particularly since in the one scene where the men get their kit off, they all have music stands or pianos to hide behind. Laura Williams gives a particularly classy performance as Maureen, whose rapid transition from shy, clumsy tea girl to glamorous star of the show is a forgivable stretch of the imagination. Despite the title of the show, this is really Maureen’s story (after the opening scenes, Mrs Henderson’s appearances are few and far between), and Williams steps into the role of leading lady with great dignity.

Though the show certainly leaves you smiling, with infectious tunes by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain and dazzling choreography from Andrew Wright, it’s not all ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Though we see little of the war itself (and a few of the characters have a worryingly relaxed attitude about sitting on the roof at the height of the Blitz), there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a horrible thing, and fortunately the show doesn’t try to. There’s a particularly moving moment when Dutchman Vivian Van Damm, after hearing that his country’s been invaded, sings Living in a Dream World, a song that could just as easily be about our attitude to events happening in the world right now. But through it all, our spirits are bolstered by comedian Jamie Foreman’s terrible (and terribly un-PC) jokes and the general air of defiance; it’s only when this dips briefly in act 2 that the energy of the show does likewise.

Mrs Henderson Presents
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Mrs Henderson Presents has a lot more to recommend it than just naked ladies, as attractive as those ladies undoubtedly are. It sums up the Blitz spirit in one glorious image – Maureen, completely naked, giving Hitler the finger and telling him to go back where he came from. It’s a touching love story (featuring possibly the world’s greatest chat-up line) – but not quite the one we might expect. And, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun, and leaves you feeling uplifted and patriotic. You can’t ask for more than that.

Big thanks to for the opportunity to review the show!