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Anyone who has been to Hampstead Theatre recently will know that something a bit special is going on there. The Octagon at Bolton have brought down a small gem in Blonde Bombshells that is managing, whilst wallowing shamelessly in nostalgia, to remind us what we’re missing now.
That’s a strange old balancing act. Alan Plater‘s script has more creaks in it than an arthritic hip as he takes us backstage for one night in 1943 when one of the all-girl bands – here known as the Blonde Bombshells but clearly based on the real-life and redoubtable Ivy Benson – are recruiting new players.
So what if it’s stuffed full of predictable stereotypes, of the hard-nosed, the wise-cracking, the grieving, the gauche and the lubricious. What Blonde Bombshells also gives us is an extraordinary re-creation of the spirit of a time with the kind of female talent that simply takes the breath away.
We get used down here, in the metropolis, to the idea that Important Art, if it comes – and that’s questionable – is usually in the shape of classic revivals by one of the national companies with a Big Named Male Director, or a new play by one of the Big Male Playwrights or a West End revival with a Big Hollywood Name. Women do get a look-in from time to time, as a director or playwright. But how many times can you remember a production that boasted seven major roles for women and not just as actors? See these girls blow their socks off as they recreate the sounds of the forties – the Andrews Sisters, Glen Miller, and swing.
As I watched Ruth Alexander-Rubin as Scottish pianist, May, cigarette drooling from her mouth, hair in ringlets, I thought, also, of my now 80-something aunt. In the forties, she, too, had been a young woman with an ear for picking up any tune and playing it on the piano. She once recorded for the British Forces Network. She might have ended up with Ivy Benson at the end of the war but instead found herself in de-nazification duties with the Control Commission in Hamburg, playing for Piano Playtime and meeting her husband to be.
Blonde Bombshells has that effect. It takes you back. But, most wonderfully, it recreates anew. I watched youngsters in the front rows at Hampstead. Could they ever have seen anything quite like the blonde bombers and scarlet evening dress likes of Rubin, Sarah Groarke, Barbara Hockaday, Rosie Jenkins, Karen Paullada and Claire Storey – not to mention Chris Grahamson in drag – blowing the blues away on trumpet, saxophone and trombone. They seemed to be having as good a time – maybe better – as those thrown back by memories. They laughed, they pointed at the finger-wagging Valentinos (Plater’s imagined Andrews Sisters). And they stomped approval when finally the Big Finale and Karen Paullada singing the hauntingly sloppy but iridescent ‘If I Had a Ribbon Bow’ had to bring things to an end.
Small is beautiful. I hope Blonde Bombshells doesn’t end up in the West End, though by every standard of talent, it certainly should. But it would lose its special intimacy. You come away feeling you know every one of those Blonde Bombers personally. You come away with a smile on your face, wondering all over again at the swathes of talent lying so close to hand that so seldom seem to get their due reward. And marvelling at the spirit that has just been conjured before you: brazen, bold, a blast and seven eighths female. Big Blousey musicals, drenched in hi-tech? A pish and tush! Give me the Blonde Bombshells, every time.
Carole Woddis © 2007
Originally published on R&V 22-07-06
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