A Jukebox musical using the wartime songs of British composer Noel Gay, the man who wrote Me and My Girl? Sounds like it might be eeking out the material in a fashion strongly reminiscent of rationing.

And indeed, the story constructed around Gay numbers such as Run Rabbit Run and There’s Something About a Soldier is as convincing as dried egg and as thinly spread as half a coupon of butter.

It doesn’t help that the Watermill Theatre in Newbury has exercised its now well-worn approach of staging it with a large cast of actor-musicians, who deliver some visually stunning routines with rather less than top-quality musicianship. The problem here, of course, is that Caroline Leslie’s production requires first-class singers, top-notch dancers, professional actors and gifted musicians all rolled into one. That’s a tall order by any standards.

And yet there’s something winning and heartwarming about the show that has you strolling out of the theatre, humming one of those crusty old tunes with a smile on your face.

Maybe it’s the Blitz spirit encapsulated in the creaky tale of a BBC radio variety show trying to broadcast live in the middle of an air raid. Maybe it’s the homely charm of Tom Rogers’s evocative set and impressive array of costumes.

More likely it’s the twinkle in the eye of the show’s star, Gary Wilmot, whose irrepressible likeability and stunning talents simply ooze across the footlights. It’s just a shame he isn’t showcased much more in what is very much an ensemble piece.

There’s some terrific close-harmony vocal work from the four-girl backing troupe, a reliable rhythm section under musical director Paul Herbert and some excellent character work from John Conroy as a stuffy BBC producer.

But it’s Wilmot who carries the piece, lifting it from sentimental self-indulgence to a night of nostalgia, laced unashamedly with corny gags and Gay’s jaunty songs.

It’s harmless, entertaining and half an hour too long, but if you like your musicals old-fashioned and reliable, you could do a lot worse.

MICHAEL DAVIES

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