“Music is about the only clean thing left in this awful world,” is the delicately-freighted message of this revival of Alan Plater’s stage play, itself adapted from his 2000 film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.
The visceral horror of the world at war is in short supply within the piece, but its effects linger over the (almost) all-female swing band gathered to rehearse the show of their lives in a morale-boosting performance to be broadcast to the nation from Hull.
Well-travelled pianist May (Alicia McKenzie) and double bassist Grace (Wendy Paver) laugh and crack sharp, bawdy jokes to cover up the trauma of the loss of their husbands to combat, while make-do male drummer Patrick (Alexander Bean, whose lush baritone adds something special to the vocal mix) embodies a sense of deeply-hidden male terror at the horror of combat.
Liz Cooke’s set consists of a bomb-damaged theatre in which the group rehearse, with a painted backdrop lending a rich sense of depth. The ever-present threat of more bombs dropping is tangible.
Yet the tone of the piece is light and airy, propelled by the jukebox musical quality of its structure – the subject being 1940s classics, from George Formby’s cheeky In My Little Snapshot Album to a brisk T’Ain’t What You Do and the dreamy If I Had a Ribbon Bow – and by the genuine, well-drawn humour of these conflicting personalities.
Emelie Patry’s no-nonsense Scottish bandleader Betty is the glue that bonds the performances together, and Lynwen Haf Roberts’ wide-eyed teen Liz allows the audience a way in. Yet the roles of fun-loving nun Lily (Fiona Wood) and “posh tart” in uniform Miranda (Tilly-Mae Millbrook) allow their actors to revel in many of the best lines.
It’s a piece that presents itself as a nostalgia show, yet in the lively arrangements, the boisterous humour and the adept, multi-tasking performances, it feels compellingly modern.