As an original musical, not based on a book or a film, nor brought over from America to our side of the pond, Miss Nightingale is somewhat of an anomaly on the theatrical scene at present. It is a highly political piece, but not one that announces its own intentions. Instead it fuses a heady world of 1940s jazz and cabaret with a tale of illegal love, blackmail and immigrants trying to make their living in the middle of the London Blitz.
It has been the lovechild of creator Matthew Bugg for many years, performed across the UK on numerous tours and played to thousands of people. Yet this is the first time Miss Nightingale has come back to London since its very first showing at the King’s Head Theatre in 2011. Does it not resonate with the cosmopolitan London audience? Is it simply too anti-West End to be successful?
I caught up with writer/ director Matthew Bugg and Miss Nightingale herself, Tamar Broadbent, to get their thoughts on the show’s reception. See below for a talk of politics, the class divide and a multi-talented set of instrumentalists:
Congratulations so far on Miss Nightingale. How do you both feel like it’s going?
Matthew: It’s been so interesting in bringing it London, it’s such a different audience down here. We’ve been touring the show across the UK for five years and played to 50,000 people so it’s a huge achievement. But, it’s a different theatre world here, different people with different tastes & objectives and that’s thrown up a lot of challenges for us.
I’ve always taken the view that you should listen to how the audience are responding and listen to what they’re taking from you. The brilliant thing about live art is you can really tailor the show according to the audience. I come from Sheffield and there’s very much a sense there that going to the theatre is a middle-class thing that you do and when you go there, you have to be well behaved. We started the show on a couple of tours with a number that says to the audience,
“Relax! You can laugh, you can be raucous, you can be bawdy, you can enjoy all these things.”
Then very quickly we take them into another world which is the truth of the show, but having got permission from them first. However when you come to London, the response is,
“Don’t you tell me that I can relax, don’t you tell me that I can have a good time!”
The great thing about producing your own work is that you just go and change it. We’ve written some new scenes that have just gone into production and we’ve cut three of the songs since it’s been open in the London run. The whole point of the show is that it is deeply political, but it’s also all about trauma, about how people who have good hearts behave really badly because they’re hurting.
There is also something different with Miss Nightingale – you have a musical that is not taken from a film or a book, it’s purely created from you.
Matthew: There is a notion that British musical theatre doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating what the form can do, it’s not being ambitious at the stories we’re telling and I think that’s a great sadness – there is so much in the response it can generate from people. In London, you’ve got a dominant musical theatre culture where the shows being celebrated are those that have successful production values, as opposed to what they’re about.
Matthew has a point about musical theatre in Britain – even Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber himself at the Olivier Awards commented that:
“The state of musicals in the West End is not great. We’ve got Groundhog Day, which is wonderful, we’ve got The Girls, which is wonderful, but we’ve got to compare that with 13 new musicals on Broadway this season.”
It seems as though the Lord of musical theatre and Matthew are in agreement on this point, even if they disagree about the success of the West End itself:
Matthew: We had offers to do the show in the West End, which we turned down because we didn’t want to be competing on West End terms – we can’t, that’s not the show we’re trying to make. The Vaults is the right space for us to show this as a theatre piece, as opposed to a West End musical. In a hugely simplistic sense, we are ending up with a West End that is a monoculture and a fringe that impersonates the West End. There is lots of really exciting work that is challenging that, but on the whole, that’s what it’s like.
What’s also been fascinating is how the show has polarised reviewers, it’s been a real Marmite show. We’ve had 5* reviews saying that we’re the future of musical theatre and what we’re doing is revolutionary, but then we’ve also been totally panned – it’s really hard to balance those two up. Some of the reviewers that don’t get it, they seem to think we’re trying to make a commercial West End show and have failed to do that, but that’s just nothing like what we’re trying to do. Miss Nightingale is about a connection, telling stories about trauma in a way that is full of humour and laughs, so you soften what the show is about in order to get the story across. Some people totally understand that, others think you’re not achieving anything.
“The whole point of the show is that it is deeply political, but it’s also all about trauma, about how people who have good hearts behave really badly because they’re hurting.”
Has the West End become a monoculture, every show in essence a doppelganger of itself? If so, then perhaps theatre has lost its way, or become so popularised and mainstream that it has forgotten what its purpose is:
Theatre is meant to be a mirror to society. Does that still hold true, in which case society has become monocultural, or has theatre lost its purpose?
Tamar: Well, with cuts to the arts over the 20 years, even in television, you can see the effects everywhere. If the first season of certain shows from the 1970s and 1980s had been made today, they wouldn’t have made any more. That was a time when people would give a series the chance to breathe and there was money to do that.
I wonder whether on a base level people aren’t taking risks on anything anymore – but that’s where really exciting stuff happens. Even if you go to the West End, say you’ve come to London for a day, you wouldn’t take a risk on a show for a number of reasons – maybe ticket price or time wasted. We can’t even watch a video for more than a minute without people getting bored. So people don’t take chances on new shows.
Do you see this on the comedy circuit too, an area you’ve been very successful in for the last few years?
Tamar: In some ways, yes. One of the things that attracted me to comedy is that you’re either obviously doing well or you’re not. It’s a meritocracy – if you do well at gigs, it’s obvious and you get more gigs. If you can feel yourself failing then you learn how to get better. On the club circuit at least, it’s very hard to argue with somebody doing well. That’s an exciting thing about Miss Nightingale – some days it’s a comedy and some days it’s a drama – if my stand-up set was ever a drama and not a comedy I would be in trouble!
Set in 1942 during the middle of the Blitz, Miss Nightingale deals with the themes of forbidden love and a woman fighting to be heard in a white, heterosexual man’s world. It’s still 25 years until both the Abortion Act and the Sexual Offences Act come into play, so in this production the love between Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe and George Nowodny is not only deemed inhuman but illegal. Likewise the notion that Maggie could simply terminate her unwanted pregnancy is a flight of fancy. So how relatable are the characters 75 years later?
Do you find it easy to relate to Maggie Nightingale as the character you play?
Tamar: Yes, absolutely, we talked in so much depth about the characters and their journeys. For me, Maggie’s journey is just as difficult, traumatic and exciting as what the two men are going through. I love that the musical gives space to both of those storylines and that they all get entangled so you’re never sure who is at fault really. It’s not a straightforward, simple tale of good and bad.
Some of the things Maggie does, you have to remember the time that she’s living in and the kind of pressures that are upon her. As a modern woman, you can have an abortion quite easily or get remarried again, it’s a totally different world. But what would you do living in that time? It’s too easy to forget how different the world was then.
Matthew: What’s been really interesting also is that since bringing the show to London, so many people imagined that Frank, as the upper-class character, has the same values as me. They’ve unconsciously assumed that, because London is so used to middle-class writers, hearing Frank’s jokes at the expense of the lower-class characters somehow reflects my point of view. Actually, I’m a working-class lad from Sheffield whose parents grew up in pit villages. The person I identify with is Maggie, the one who is struggling to have her voice be heard in a world where other people are controlling everything. That’s exactly how I feel still – even though I’ve had a successful career with West End and international shows, I’m constantly battling to have my voice be heard.
Miss Nightingale, both in content and in conceptualisation, is fast sounding like a show that actively shuns conventional West End traditions in its mission to be relatable and appeal to a more ‘real’ audience. This is evident in the way that Matthew and producer/ husband Tobias Oliver cast Tamar and her fellow actors:
Tamar: It’s interesting how Matt and I met – he saw me do one of my new comedy songs about pubic hair. He didn’t audition me conventionally, we spent a lot of time getting the sound for Maggie that we wanted. There was no pressure, which was really helpful for me in realising that I actually relate quite a lot to this character. For example, there’s a bit where Maggie sings “The Pussy Song” at The Savoy Hotel and I remembered this time at my cousin’s wedding (they’re a really religious family) when we all got very drunk at the end and everyone wanted me to sing a song. So, I did my song about balls at this really Christian wedding – it went to the point of some people loving it and some people being horrified!
“Maggie’s journey is just as difficult, traumatic and exciting as what the two men are going through.”
Tell me about the other performers in the show. Miss Nightingale is a performance that requires talent on multiple levels – acting, singing, dancing, ability to play an instrument. How long have the current cast been involved?
Matthew: We’ve never used casting directors because when you work with them, you often get people that are already successful and I like providing opportunities for people that need them. So, in every single show that we’ve done we’ve always had at least one person for whom it’s their first professional job.
Matthew: We are Tamar’s first professional theatre job; when Conor O’Kane started in 2015 it was his first professional theatre job; for Nicholas Coutu-Langmead, he’d done one tour; Carla Goodman, the designer, it was probably her third job; Callum Macdonald, the lighting designer, it’s his first professional theatre job. We’ve provided opportunity… but you’re not supposed to do that, you’re supposed to get the big name in that will sell the show for you.
When we first wrote the piece, I spent three years writing to producers and venues trying to get it staged. At this point I already had a number of West End shows under my belt and a successful career – I wasn’t a nobody, I was coming from a strong position and yet still couldn’t get anyone to give me a break. Everyone was saying that a show about two men, which dealt with a strong willed, flawed, difficult female protagonist, which was an original script and score, was not going to sell. So, the only choice we had in the end was to do it ourselves – there’s a responsibility there after to provide the opportunity for other people.
“Even though I’ve had a successful career, I’m constantly battling to have my voice be heard.”
Matthew: The great thing about doing the show so many times is that you know exactly what you’re looking for and you can see a performer who instinctively gives you that. Tamar is very strongly feminist and it can be hard to find that in music theatre – people can be so judged simply on what they look like that they get themselves out of this industry.
Tamar: That’s one of the main things when Matt proposed the role to me and sent me the script – this role is interesting. It’s hard for me to find funny female roles in musical theatre, even though there are loads of female comedians and actresses around.
Matthew: You do have strong women in musicals, but they are often injured and damaged – Maggie may be that but my God she also gives as good as she gets! What you get are mainly funny older female parts.
To flip it on its head, you also don’t get a lot of romantic older female parts in musical theatre – romance seems to be for the young. Maybe there is a lack of variety in musical theatre, particularly as it is traditionally seen as a stereotypical haven for gay men?
It is increasingly clear that Miss Nightingale is a show that has has been hard fought for, Matthew and co battling every step of the way to tell their story and have it be heard. Politics, diversity and acceptance are intrinsic to the background of the show as well as in its storyline. But this is also a musical that combines a number of influences, fusing many different styles into a multilayered production.
You’ve drawn on a lot of musical styles in the way in which you put the music together. Was that a conscious decision to draw on so many areas – from The Andrews Sisters and Vera Lynn, to Kander & Ebb, even classical counterpoint?
Matthew: The show has definitely evolved over the period of time that it has been written. More of the first version was polyphonic harmonies but it wasn’t reaching out to the audience in the same way. It was cleverer, it was more intellectual – some of the reviewers in London that have given us a hard time may have liked it more, but if you don’t reach out to your audience, you’re not able to tell the story.
As a composer, my background is writing music for plays and I have often been advised to write more like other musical theatre greats, say Sondheim. This idea that in order to be successful you should emulate other artists is the most bizarre thing to say, rather than encouraging people to find their own voice. So, there’s no emulation here – all the counterpoint that people assume that’s Sondheim is actually Bach. My background was in classical music, playing viola in orchestras, so the heart of what I do is harmony writing.
Then the numbers that people think of as Kander & Ebb are actually Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill – we’re all looking to the same place, in this case the world that George is from. People see an inspiration as imitation whereas actually it’s drawing together the relevant themes for a show where people have come from different places, a show that’s about immigrants coming to London.
The important thing is to learn from those artists but not to emulate them. You have to find your own voice, who you are and what is unique about you.
So, you play clarinet, sax, piano in the show but also just mentioned you play viola too… How many instruments do you actually play?
Matthew: Violin, viola and piano are my good instruments. Clarinet and sax, I learnt for the show. It’s the working-class work ethic – if there’s a problem, you solve it yourself. Our problem was we needed some wind in the show. I can play other instruments and I can read music, so I got a clarinet, practiced two hours a day and in six months I could play. You’re used to all the feeling of constant failure that comes with learning a musical instrument, so you don’t have to battle that and you can just get on with it.
Tamar: I‘d love to learn the violin – there’s a bit in the film “Raise Your Voice” with Hilary Duff where someone has got a wah-wah pedal and plays electric violin, which I think is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
Miss Nightingale, a cocktail of jazz, wartime chutzpah and forbidden fantasy, is layered in every sense of the word. Six successful tours under its belt, what could possibly be next?
Matthew: We decided initially not to do the show again after the last tour because it had done five and had been hugely successful. But then a number of things happened in the last year: the Orlando bombs happened; Brexit happened; Donald Trump became President.
We needed to do the show again with the agenda of taking it to America, which looks like it’s going to happen(!), but not necessarily going to the obvious places and instead going to those where the piece really matters. Maybe it’ll start off in New York, but then maybe from New York to Michigan, to Idaho – this is about making political work that can reach out & change people’s lives and it’s tempting to underplay or be embarrassed about wanting to make art less important. But I’m not going to do that anymore, I feel like I’ve been doing that for a long time.
“We spend too much time trying to make the people who don’t like us, like us. We should be spending time with making the people who like us, love us.”
Tamar: I was just reading Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Crafty Art Of Playmaking” – there’s a bit that says how you can talk about climate changes and all of these other issues, but the theatre is human; that’s the way you reach people, through human stories. I think Matt has achieved that so successfully – it’s a story about people. You wouldn’t bill it as a protest against Trump or Brexit, but you get there through understanding these characters.
Miss Nightingale plays The Vaults until 20 May. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.