So from the moment the girls and boys bringing that chirpily morale-raising show Variety Bandwagon to the airwaves at the height of the Blitz burst on to the stage to their terrific opening "Turn on the Music", their audience is more than ready to respond to the sign requesting “Applause” raised high by Jeeps, the ever-resourceful Foley artist.
Trouble is, Sammy Shaw, star of the show isn’t ready at all – he’s gone AWOL in an air raid, but his long-suffering girlfriend and co-star Olive fears dalliance elsewhere, not disaster. It’s all she can do to pacify the show’s new and officiously hands-on producer, Heathcliffe Bultitude. And when Sammy does arrive, it’s with guest star Gary Strong, that handsome movie star who sets all hearts aflutter, especially those of close-harmony backing group the Grosvenor sisters. Gary goes back a long way with Olive and fancies doing more than reminisce … Will they renew their relationship? Will it shock Sammy into action? Will gorgeous radio girlfriend Amy spread a little happiness? And will the ventriloquist ever turn up?
This is how book writer Abi Morgan (revisions by Alex Armitage, Gay’s grandson) sets up a show which affectionately evokes that wartime spirit with no fewer than twenty-one terrific cues for Noel Gay’s equally evocative songs.
Director Caroline Leslie expertly and imaginatively marshalls all the resources of her talented company and creative team to deliver an evening of sheer pleasure. Musical director Paul Herbert and choreographer Alistair David relish the challenge of working with actor/musicians to fill the Watermill’s tiny stage with excitement and fun.
The cast manage star quality and team spirit in complementary measures. Watermill “girlfriend” Anna-Jane Casey as Olive gives heart to the show with a performance of real warmth as well as loads of oomph. Gary Wilmot, who earned his musical theatre spurs playing Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl , makes a welcome, chipper return to Noel Gay as Sammy. Darren Bennett is a matinee idol to swoon over and Vivien Carter a forces sweetheart to rival Vera Lynn. Sophie Byrne, Sophie Scott and Sarah Scowen provide delicious close harmony as the Grosvenors – and a lot of fun too. Andrew C Wadsworth’s “jobsworth” Bultitude provides a great a comic turn, thawing out and joining in – in glorious voice - with all the zeal of a convert. And Christian Edwards clearly missed his calling as a Foley artist!
With this evocation of wartime spirit, it was sad that lines about the streets being hard to negotiate after bomb damage took on a new resonance in a week that saw them recovering from riot damage. If only all those volunteering to clear them up could be treated to this terrific production as a reward!
- Judi Herman