After a previous unsatisfactory outing with a burlesque show in 2012, I approached Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale: A Burlesque Musical with a certain amount of trepidation. This is an art form that doesn’t particularly appeal and a musical based around it couldn’t really work, could it?
The answer is: yes. Bugg, who wrote both book and score, has created some beautifully crafted songs for his star, Amber Topaz, who bumps and grinds every speck of raunchiness out of her character, Maggie Brown, the eponymous Miss Nightingale.
The piece is not without its flaws. Miss Nightingale would desperately like to be a Gypsy or a Cabaret, but doesn’t quite cut it, although it comes very close. Bugg’s songs outgun the slightly ropey script at times but, nevertheless, this is a perfectly serviceable chamber musical populated with believable and engaging characters.
As Miss Nightingale’s songwriter, George Nowodny, Llan Goodman puts in a credible performance as a man haunted by his own sexuality in war-torn London at a time when “those who prefer the company of their own kind” faced being ostracised and even imprisoned. Goodman’s sensitive, witty, and generally likeable Polish refugee is a far cry from his lover, the wealthy nightclub owner, Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Tomm Coles), whose morally bankrupt machinations threaten the happiness of George and Maggie, and, inevitably, his own reputation.
The story doesn’t really hold together quite as well as the musical numbers. Witnessing Maggie’s gradual metamorphosis into her Miss Nightingale alter-ego would have been more satisfying to the narrative than the overnight “let’s put on a show right here in the old barn” scenario, and there is a totally superfluous final scene after the cast take their bows, whose musical number is far weaker than the pre-curtain quodlibet, Someone Else’s Song. The show runs at two hours, thirty minutes – shaving this ten minutes off wouldn’t harm it one bit.
All in all, director Peter Rowe keeps his cast on their toes, although pace does slip at times. Rowe’s trademark actor/musician are back, led on-stage by Bugg himself. It’s a small band, but a nicely evocative one of the era.
Miss Nightingale - A Burlesque Musical is a long way from being a failure. It could do with a bit of a dialogue review and a bit of a restructure, but it has merits aplenty and, while occasionally smutty, the vulgarity is more of the seaside postcard variety than anything to be outraged about. A lot of fun and a pleasant surprise.