When Lionel Bart’s Blitz! originally opened in 1962, it was touted as the most expensive musical ever. Producers expected it to be as popular as Oliver! but despite a respectable run, it lacked the longevity of his Dickens adaptation.
A few notable, if pared-down, revivals have been mounted since and it’s an understandable choice for director Phil Willmott as part of his season commemorating the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
The story centres on two families living off Petticoat Lane during Hitler’s devastating bombing campaign on London. Drawing on his own experiences, Bart offers us an East End Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of air-raid shelters, boozers and bombed-out streets.
Its style has dated noticeably but Willmott hasn’t shied away from the inappropriate dance breaks or indeed the anti-Semitism aimed at Mrs Blitztein as she attempts to keep spirits up. In this respect, Willmott’s Blitz! is a celebration of the uneasy relationship musical theatre has always had with gritty realism.
In the large ensemble cast, Jessica Martin is a stalwart, centred and deeply sympathetic Mrs Blitztein. Resilient to whatever Michael Martin’s officious Mr Locke, or Hitler, throws at her, she captures the pragmatic Jewish spirit that permeated Petticoat Lane. There are energetic character performances too from Eleanor Sandars and Beaux Harris both vying for the affection of Robbie McArtney’s feckless deserter Harry.
While the design is basic at best, Willmott’s production makes for an uplifting reminder of this West End hit.