Review: Miss Nightingale (The Vaults, London)

Miss Nightingale arrives in London following a number of revised productions over the years. First performed back in 2011, it’s pitched as ‘sex, scandal and showbiz 1940s style’, but does it follow up on that promise?

Telling the story of a group of performers making a living amongst the background of World War 2, it centres on the unlikely gay relationship between an aristocratic social butterfly and a Polish Jew who has fled persecution, as well as on the rise to fame for cabaret singer Miss Nightingale.

There’s much to enjoy throughout – Matthew Bugg, the show’s writer, director and producer has created a solid bunch of characters who all balance each other out nicely. Maggie Brown (Tamar Broadbent) is the ballsy nurse-cum-performer, whose alter-ego Miss Nightingale becomes the talk of the town. Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) is Miss Nightingale’s manager and gadabout who, in the face of scandal, struggles with the gay relationship he has found himself in. And George Nowodny (Conor O’Kane) is Sir Frank’s Jewish lover, musical maestro and loyal friend to Maggie Brown.

The problem is that it’s all rather too much. There’s ‘sex, scandal and showbiz’ aplenty, but by covering so much, the production rarely gets its teeth into any one part. The result is that it’s tonally inconsistent – one moment a musical farce, the next an intimate look at gay relationships in WW2. Credit to Bugg is due for how those moments are treated; when it’s funny, it’s very funny, and there’s a subtlety to the more gritty moments that’s nice to watch. But as a result of that inconsistency, you come out feeling like it’s successfully covered very little.

1st kiss - Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O'Kane in Miss Nightingale Photo, Robert Workman
1st kiss – Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O’Kane in Miss Nightingale Photo, Robert Workman

The same problem occurs in the music too. While there’s no denying that Bugg is a skilled song writer, the evening bounces between themes too sporadically to have the desired effect. There are some genuinely hilarious numbers (often those delivered as part of Miss Nightingale’s act – ‘The Pussy Song’ and ‘Sausage Song’) and some lovely ballads (‘Understudy’ and ‘Someone Else’s Song’) but neither quite have the impact they’re supposed to because of the tonal imbalance.

Where the production does succeed is in its aesthetic. Carla Goodman, the show’s designer, has created a simple but effective set that feels very improvised. It works in the show’s favour, giving it a chamber theatre-like quality that’s very fitting for the little nods to the audience and cabaret setting. The design is aided nicely by being housed in The Vaults, which has been decorated with 1940s artwork and memorabilia. Aside from some terrible sound (I guess that’s what you get when you house a show in a tunnel…) the effect is that of a WW2 bunker, and as trains rumble above the theatre, it’s hard to imagine the production taking place anywhere else.

Verdict: ★★

There’s potential here, but Miss Nightingale struggles to balance the serious political message with the humour of the cabaret club setting. Unfortunately, even in the perfect setting of The Vaults it fails to have the impact that it strives for.

Miss Nightingale is running at The Vaults until 20th May. Tickets are available here.

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