The evening after I went to see Miss Nightingale, I was talking to a friend who works in burlesque. “I went to a show about queer love in World War II last night!” I told her. “It had boys kissing and saucy songs and everything! And it was set in a nightclub!” She was sold. And while there is much more to this show than my elevator speech contains, those few sentences capture much of what there is to love about the new musical that is Miss Nightingale. For those who won’t like its themes, well, they’ve probably already run off. But if you’re looking to make up your mind about whether or not to go, let me tell you more.
It’s the 1940s, in England. Injured air ace and war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) has decided that running a nightclub would be just the thing. With rationing, there’s a lot of shady characters running around … including Tom (Niall Kerrigan), who’s sourcing booze from parts unknown. They meet to do a deal, and the mobster has his girlfriend Maggie (Tamar Broadbent) audition. Suddenly Sir Frank has found the entertainment for his venue … a blonde northern lass who works as a nurse by day and a singer of bawdy songs by night … a real (Florence) Nightingale. She gets her tunes from George (Conor O’Kane), a Polish pianist who … good heavens, does Sir Frank know him? And do they have the hots for each other? And are they going to somehow maneuveur the heavily mined waters of gay love during the era when it was a ticket to a jail sentence, not to mention social ostracism? Why yes they are … but not without a few spectacular crashes (and kisses) on the way.
Although the romance between Frank and George provides a nice structure for the show, most of the fun is actually in the scenes where Broadbent is front and center, entertaining the punters (both real and imaginary). Her sassy songs, about “shutting my pussy in the door,” “getting your sausage where you can” and other single-entendre subjects, provided lots of laughs and were even more fun done as a 1940s musical revue. But there was much more music than just that, as we had several songs developing Frank and George’s romance, providing character insights on Nightingale, and generally fleshing out the entire show as a musical. All of this was done with a live band on stage staffed by the various performers, whose skills include drumming, piano, triangle, ukelele, and a host of other instruments.
There’s some tension introduced via…. wait, no, I’ll skip that spoiler! The various plot twists seemed a bit B-movie, but the theme (gay romance in WWII) and the decision to have a Northern girl as the big star won me over (even if Nightingale herself needed a bit more fleshing out). And it’s really a war story that I haven’t seen told before …. maybe the setting is forced or hard to believe, but given the attention that’s been paid to the fiftieth anniversary of the decision to decriminalize homosexuality in the UK, it feels like a story we’re all ready to hear. People in the 1940s were gay just like they are now, but the people who told stories back in the day didn’t talk about this. It’s time, and Miss Nightingale is a fun look back at what might have been as well as a reminder of what most certainly was. I suspect they’ll be finding more than just a few show biz types in their audience as it progresses; we do love us a good night out, after all.
(Miss Nightingale The Musical continues at The Vaults until May 20th. This review was for a performance that took place April 5th. Remember for this show the entrance is from a side street of Lower Marsh, so don’t get lost trying to access the normal tunnel like I did.)