On an evening where the mercury on the temperature gauge almost touched thirty degrees, the Octagon Theatre’s air conditioning system was a blessed relief to the packed press night audience. They were rewarded for their dedication to the theatrical cause with a nostalgic and tender memory play that simultaneously pulled at the heartstrings and got the toes tapping.
The eponymous ‘Blonde Bombshells’ are an all-girl swing band touring wartime Britain entertaining the troops. Due to their membership being unexpectedly depleted by three of the members running off with American GI’s after a recent concert, they are forced to hastily audition for replacements ahead of their big break on BBC radio later that evening. The eclectic new recruits include naive sixth former Elizabeth (Lauren Chinnery); Lily (Gleanne Purcell-Brown), a ukelele wielding nun with a penchant for literal interpretation; Miranda (Stacey Ghent), an upper class ‘gel’ with a healthy interest in the opposite sex and Patrick (Rory Gradon), who decides that the best way to avoid active service is to join the band disguised in a blonde wig and nylons.
This is a play with musical interludes rather than a full blown musical theatre production, the beautifully rendered versions of 1940’s classics do not serve to move the story forward but act as punctuation points, showing the development of the ‘Bombshells’ as both a band and as friends. Director Zoe Waterman wisely recognises this structure, allowing the humour of the writing space to breathe in amongst the musical moments and showcasing the unique voice of writer Alan Plater to excellent effect. Plater is a prolific talent who produced over three hundred assorted credits across radio, TV, film and theatre during a long career. Most people will have enjoyed his output without knowing who he is, but as a chronicler of working class northern life he stands alongside Rosenthal, Sillitoe, Barstow and Storey in my opinion. ‘Blonde Bombshells’ is one of his less polemical plays, but amongst the nostalgic warblings of Gracie Fields and George Formby he still manages to make a strong point about the place of women in British wartime society. When Bandleader Betty (Georgina Field) rails against ‘a life spent cooking and washing and cleaning’ whilst explaining her choice of career to Elizabeth, she is speaking for an entire generation of women whose talent was squandered.
Undoubtedly the main reason audiences will see this show is for the music and in this they will not be disappointed. Musical Director Greg Last has devised a playlist of real quality which faithfully evokes the era when jazz, blues and swing music was developed and refined. Whether it be the slow and sultry jazzy brass of ‘Body & Soul, the crooning of Fats Waller’s ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’ or the sprightly cheekiness of ‘My Little Snapshot Album’ from George Formby, they are all convincingly presented. In this he is assisted by the Sound Design of Chris Bogg, which rendered both the music and vocals so convincing that the slightly reedy hiss accompanying the Andrews Sisters ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ really sounded like an authentic Bakelite radio from the 1940’s.
The performances from all eight of the cast showcase the craft of the actor-musician to superb effect. Whether it be Mae (Verity Bajoria) on the piano, Vera (Sarah Groarke) blowing the trumpet or Grace (Alice Mckenna) plucking the double bass, they were all at the top of their game. Acting chops are required for all these accomplished performers to feign a lack of ability and confidence earlier and slowly demonstrate their increasing competence as a group, culminating in the swinging conclusion during ‘Ain’t What You Do’. I would have liked to have seen more development of the romance between Elizabeth and Patrick and the back stories of Vera and Grace felt underdeveloped. However, Ghent was particularly eye-catching as Miranda, the token ‘posho’ in this northern clique, her pronunciation of ‘ull’ bringing the audience to raucous laughter whilst Field held the whole thing together as Betty, a woman surviving in a man’s world.
Verdict: A show the world needs at the moment, lacking in any cynicism it is a real treat. A nostalgic all singing, all swinging trip down memory lane.
Playing until 1st July, https://octagonbolton.co.uk/events/blonde-bombshells-of-1943
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 13th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: