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Miss Nightingale in rehearsal at Doncaster

At Cast in Doncaster, rehearsals for Matthew Bugg's WWII-set burlesque musical, Miss Nightingale, are in full swing

Miss Nightingale, the musical by Matthew Bugg, is an interesting collaboration between Yorkshire and East Anglia. It is a co-production between Bugg's own company, Mr. Bugg Presents, based in Sheffield, and the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, co-directed by the theatre's artistic director, Peter Rowe, and opening there on 27 March for a dozen performances before touring. However, there is another Yorkshire connection: the company is using the splendid facilities at Cast Doncaster for rehearsals and invited the press there to watch a rehearsal and talk about the show.

Jill Cardo as Miss Nightingale.
© Joe Armitage

The musical is essentially the story of the relationships between three people in London in 1942: Maggie, a Northern singer, George, her songwriter, a refugee from Germany, and Sir Frank, a wealthy man about town-cum-impresario who transforms Maggie into "Miss Nightingale". With over 20 songs and an on-stage in-character band led by Bugg himself, their personal lives take place firmly in the world of cabaret.

This is Miss Nightingale Mark 3. A small-scale three-hander appeared two years ago before last year's highly successful three-month tour of the expanded version. The 2014 show contains five new songs that have been added since the start of the 2013 tour, but the main change is a move away from the heavily miked performance style into something more stripped down, with a significant development being the casting of Jill Cardo, an actor/musician, as Miss Nightingale. Though the rest of the ensemble last year consisted of actor/musicians, Maggie herself was not an instrumentalist.

The scene being rehearsed shows how this works. Clearly the sub-text is a power struggle between Maggie and Sir Frank, but this is enacted in a cabaret song that leads to what Rowe calls an "instrumental fight" between Maggie's trumpet and Sir Frank's saxophone. Bugg denies that there is any element of period pastiche in the music for the show, citing Sondheim as an influence on some of the songs, but there are parallels with the swing music of the time. When the company give us a treat before breaking for lunch, with a chirpy performance of the rather rude "Sausage Song", it's like hearing Gracie Fields singing George Formby. With a cappella numbers and others reflecting George's nostalgia for Berlin, the score is nothing if not eclectic.

In the break, conversation with Bugg, Cardo and Tomm Coles (Sir Frank) frequently turns to the subject of the actor/musician production style, both effective in itself and – as Bugg points out – useful in taking musicals to theatres without a pit. Cardo and Bugg (as choreographer) both took part in Northern Broadsides' splendid brass-banded production of A Government Inspector and Coles worked on many productions with the founding father of this style, John Doyle, at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury.

Bugg, wearing his writer/director hat, has nothing but praise for the talents of the actor/musicians who have become such a key part of the British theatrical scene:

"Actor/musicians as a breed are so hard-working, diligent and incredibly solution-focussed because, as an instrumentalist, the whole purpose of practice is to get it wrong, then repeat and repeat until you get it right, but you're not to feel defeated if you get it wrong. One of the biggest challenges in a rehearsal room is to find ways for people not to feel defeated if they can't do things. That's already there with actor/musicians."

Coles agrees: "So often you hear in rehearsals, ‘I need this to happen and I need that to happen. Can you just make it in happen?' so you get to be very solution-based. You do a production with no instruments involved and everyone's debating how to do something and you have to keep quiet because you've already done it in your head."

But what about the actual musical quality? All three emphasise such things as character, personality and excitement rather than polish. As Cardo says, "People in the audience realise they're not coming to watch a concert. The sound isn't the same as if we were all sitting still playing from sheet music. They expect an exciting sound and a different balance because we're moving around – and it gives you the chance to be a bit freer with the music."

"It's another layer to the piece," says Coles. "They say, ‘If you can't say it, sing it. If you can't sing it, dance it.' There's another layer to that: ‘If you can't sing it or dance it, then play it.'"

Casting Cardo has helped to transform the whole balance of the show, according to Bugg: "Last year it felt that the show was about the leading lady; this year it feels that the show is about the ensemble. It's about how three people negotiate their relationships and making Maggie an actor/musician makes it a very even playing field for these three strong charismatic people. You wouldn't take it for any other musical out there. The way we use the English music hall and cabaret tradition is unique."

"A lot of the music is speech song, the melody is very free," adds Cardo. "There's a lot of flexibility in performance – the way Matt's written it is very expressive."

Not surprisingly, the publicity for Miss Nightingale uses the 4- and 5-star reviews from last year's tour, but clearly Bugg and his company see the more intimate and collaborative 2014 version as a decided step forward.

Miss Nightingales to Cast Doncaster on 10 April and further Yorkshire dates are the City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds (24-27 April), Library Theatre, Sheffield (28 April - 2 May) and Victoria Theatre, Halifax (3 May).

Further details on www.missnightingale.co.uk

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