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Miss Atomic Bomb review at St James Theatre, London – ‘bombs’

Catherine Tate in Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Catherine Tate in Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I really wanted Miss Atomic Bomb to be a blast, in every sense, but a nuclear winter soon engulfs the St James Theatre and not just because of the snow-like fallout from the atom bombs that are being tested over the Nevada desert in sight of the Las Vegas strip in 1950s America.

As a foam machine pumps out gentle bubbles of said fallout over a hotel called the Golden Goose, the musical tries to create juxtapositions between that hostelry eagerly drumming up business by holding beauty contests tied to the tests and the deadly seriousness of the Cold War.

Welcome to America, folks, where the sheep on a farm are being poisoned by the fallout, and welcome to a musical where the cast sings in praise of the self-same sheep, “A sheep won’t start a war with South Korea, /the Devil came a knocking but I said ‘nope’ / Cos I got sheep/ And where there’s sheep there’s hope.”

I’m afraid we were only a few songs in and I was already losing hope. The satire is lame, the songs desperately derivative.

Though it has been in development for some five years, what has fetched up at the St James still feels like a very early draft. Yes, it has an original idea — not based on a previously existing book or film — and an original score, albeit one drawing heavily on pastiche of country and western, and musical theatre tributes to Les Mis and Wicked. We’re in Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors territory, telling a cautionary tale in which supposed progress leads to calamity.

But its chaotic and formless comic structure lacks purpose, polish and point. And the best efforts of a hard-working cast can’t redeem it. Sometimes they add to the prevailing confusion, as in Catherine Tate’s impossible accent that veers from Southern drawl to Australia. Poor Simon Lipkin has to spend most of the evening hobbling around, when he is shot first in one foot and then in the other. Daniel Boys is hobbled even more severely with the part of a bank debt enforcer that even he can’t save. Only Dean John-Wilson as a deserting army soldier and Florence Andrews as the young woman who gives him shelter manage to make something sweetly convincing out of what they’re given.

A bare, functional stage, presided over by a massive frame that contains a staircase to nowhere, is resourcefully populated by a series of brilliant projections that bring it to life. Bill Deamer’s co-direction with co-author Adam Long gives it an efficient sheen, but ultimately Miss Atomic Bomb is that sad species of musical: a bomb in almost every way.

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An ambitious musical that needs serious work if it wants to be presentable