Unashamed nostalgia has not had much of a look-in lately, but the all-girl big bands of the Second World War era have become a cottage industry for Alan Plater, that admirable popular dramatist with a list of television credits stretching from episodes of Z Cars to the Beiderbecke Trilogy.

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 is a tribute to the sort of band pioneered by Ivy Benson, wrapped up in the memories of one of the musicians who signs on as the bombs drop. Originally a television film starring Judi Dench, Cleo Laine, Olympia Dukakis, Leslie Caron and Joan Sims (to name but a few!), the stage version was premiered two years ago at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and now Hampstead is presenting the latest revival from the Octagon, Bolton.

There's not much of a story, and anyone expecting a musical theatre experience comparable to Evita or even Sunday in the Park with George will be disappointed. But the appeal lies in the catalogue of resurrected war-time favourites by such performers as George Formby, the Andrews Sisters, Nat Gonella, Flanagan and Allen and Glenn Miller. As the band swings into action, finally in red dresses and blonde wigs on the “secret” gig in Hull (“From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the good Lord preserve us” ran the old motto), the pleasure steaming off the audience is palpable.

Like the actors in any musical directed by John Doyle, the cast have to deliver their roles and blow their own trumpets, literally. Elizabeth Marsh is the rather severe band leader Betty, while Ruth Alexander-Rubin comprises the rhythm section on a beaten-up old piano. The three new recruits are Karen Paullada’s fresh-faced Liz, Claire Storey’s ukulele-plucking nun on the run, and Rosie Jenkins’ posh Miranda in uniform who belies her Oxford-educated respectability with a glowing, brassy version of “Body and Soul”.

The structure of the piece, coming from so experienced a dramatist, is unbelievably flimsy, and most of it has apparently been discarded anyway, so that the original reunion of the older Elizabeth with the fugitive, draft-dodging Patrick who sneaks onto the bandstand like a fox in a hen coop and bashes away on the drums has been ditched for a banal prologue of reminiscence with her younger self, or grand-daughter.

The morale-boosting concert is the point of the exercise, and the girls’ sense of adventure, camaraderie and defiance is underpinned with the odd snippet of information, such as that one of the husbands has been torpedoed at Scapa Flow, another detained in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. One can imagine the show winning back a sizeable chunk of the local middle-aged (and older) Hampstead audience, though the cause of musical theatre is set back 50 years. But even your hard-hearted reviewer was singing along by the end to the chorus of “I lift up my finger and I say…”

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from June 2006 and this production's initial dates at Bolton.

Theatre provides the perfect antidote to the World Cup and Big Brother, but can how can any production compete with the high drama and histrionics that these two TV offerings can muster up? Easy, when it's directed with such attention to detail from such a rich source as Alan Plater's original wartime comedy, currently playing at the Octagon before moving to the Hampstead theatre.

Bandleader Betty needs new recruits to join The Blonde Bombshells - and fast. Every time the group plays a GI camp, they lose a member. The auditions unearth the most unlikely troupe; a naive, pure of heart schoolgirl, a posh saxophonist/soldier, a singing nun and a male drummer who will have to wear a frock in order to avoid being snapped up by the army. With the line up finalised, Betty and her team attempt to entertain radio listeners and the audience with 1940s classic tunes, bags of humour and the poignancy evoked by war.

As sparkling as this piece is, the astounding performances enhance what is truly a wonderful piece of theatre. Barbara Hockaday and Sarah Groarke play Grace and Vera with the right amount of feistiness which masks the pain that war brings. Matching them is Ruth Alexander Rubin's strong piano player, May. Karen Paullada, Claire Storey and Rosie Jenkins add real heart and humour to the piece as the school girl, nun and soldier respectively. Chris Grahamson as male drummer woos the audience with his great understated turn. Finally Elizabeth Marsh is the backbone of the piece and delivers her lines with real precision and conviction.

Each performer also stands out as they play instruments throughout and have lovely singing voices which perfectly capture the spirit of the 1940’s. Likewise Libby Watson’s evocative set design highlights the spoils of war. Also James Farncombe’s lighting illustrates the changing moods of each band member incredibly well.

Plater has crafted a fabulous swinging story which has all the highs and lows of a great drama, some foot tapping music and beautifully drawn characters. Director Mark Babych echoes the warmth of the script throughout this excellent play and as such the piece is faultless.

“It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It” and the Octagon and the Hampstead Theatre have got the results with this five star crowd pleaser.

- Glenn Meads