Miss Nightingale (Hippodrome Casino Theatre, London)

Miss Nightingale (Hippodrome Casino Theatre, London, until May 6th 2018)

Saucy songs chock-full of innuendo threaten to drag a charming and interesting new-ish musical down to a smutty gutter where Kenneth Williams lurks with a nudge, a wink and a bawdy “Oooooh, matron!”

This is an enormous shame because at its simple and innocent heart Miss Nightingale is a fresh and engaging British musical boasting a number of well-crafted songs, strong characters and a winning story of illicit love, a feisty woman following her dreams and blackmail – all set against a backdrop of 1942 war-ravaged London.

The eponymous heroine Maggie is a down to earth northern lass nurse with aspirations to be a singer, and she finds overnight success in a cabaret nightclub. So far, so Gracie Fields. But there’s an edgier side to the tale in that her gay Polish-Jewish refugee friend George falls for the club’s upper class war hero owner Sir Frank. Also in the picture is Maggie’s boyfriend, a black market wide boy who doesn’t take kindly to being relegated to the sidelines by the happy-go-lucky trio.

For all its dramatic and entertaining potential the show too often feels like Carry On, Blitz! Nothing wrong with that, but the Carry On films never pretended to have a serious message. It is also concerning that despite being around since 2011, with runs at the Lowry Studio in Salford, the King’s Head Theatre in London, and national tours, it still feels like a work in progress.

It is strange that given its setting its current home of the Hippodrome Casino Theatre, complete with cabaret style seating at tables, doesn’t work as well as it should. Perhaps there was something altogether seedier and murkier (and more atmospheric) when it played at The Vaults a year ago. However, the venue itself has been well redecorated to set the scene, with plenty of wartime posters, ration books, period papers and air raid warnings.

It is a show that could do with more focus and more balance, especially in the musical numbers. For every emotion-tugging Mister Nightingale or haunting trio This Man of Mine, there is a Pussy Song or Sausage Song urging you to get your sausage where you can. There are moments when you want to put on your best Major Bloodnok voice and issue a strangled cry of, “Nurse, the screens!”

The rumbustious plot itself disappointingly peters out, with some story lines pretty much forgotten about, and the ending, after the exuberant Someone Else’s Song, comes unexpectedly as if there were no more paper in the typewriter when the show was being written. It is true that some of the plot has changed considerably since its inception, but there are creases that still need ironing out and thought does need to be given to how to wrap it all up effectively.

But we must give writer and director Matthew Bugg (who also plays Harry and provides stunning musical accompaniment) at least two cheers for a valiant effort that is jaunty and spirited. There is a spunky soul to this show that is indefatigable and the darker themes in the story, such as prejudice, loss and forbidden love, contrast well with the sense of frivolity and “Sing as we go” determination.

Matthew Floyd Jones and Oliver Mawdsley are well-cast as the gay men finding true love at a time when homosexuality was regarded as “the enemy within.” Floyd Jones is touching and seductive as the Jew who has had to flee Nazi persecution only to find intolerance in a more liberated new country, while Mawdsley is handsomely angst-ridden as the club proprietor with a secret worthy of being blackmailed.

As Tom, Adam Langstaff is such a lovable and rogueish Cockney spiv that it comes as a shock to find him resorting to nefarious dealings. There is something wonderfully apt about him dashing behind the drum kit every now and then to beat out some top-tapping rhythms, which he does with considerable skill.

If there is a question in casting it must be with Lauren Chinery in the title role. This is a part in which the likes of Sheridan Smith excel, an unsinkable, gutsy female lead with a great backstory and fiery presence. Chinery is never entirely believable as the overnight sensation, neither cheeky enough nor with sufficient stage presence to make you feel she could turn the tide of the war just by belting out a crowd-pleasing showstopper dripping with double entendre. We shouldn’t be paying more attention to the fabulous musicians than to the leading lady.

Miss Nightingale continues to be a show with promise and Matthew Bugg is a gifted and enthusiastic writer, but after seven years in the workshop something more substantial needs to be delivered. It is unquestionably a show that with some firm care and attention can be (and deserves to be) nursed to vigorous health.

David Guest

Image: Darren Bell

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub