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Alan Plater’s drama about an all-women swing band in the Second World War began life as an award-winning TV film starring Judi Dench and Ian Holm. West Yorkshire Playhouse swiftly picked it up as a theatrical adaptation and now Blonde Bombshells of 1943 receives its third outing. Bolton Octagon and Hampstead Theatre’s re-written version premiered in the summer of 2006 and received the Blue Ribbon Manchester Evening News Award for Best Production of 2006. Billed as “a warm, witty musical play”, the co-production is about to embark upon a UK tour, opening at Oxford Playhouse on 30th January. Heavily into rehearsals, director Mark Babych explains why the show is “a complete joy to do” and why he cannot ever envisage leaving his post as Artistic Director of the Octagon.
Babych was drawn equally to the show’s “irresistible” music as its irresistible women, “who transform themselves from what appears to be ordinary, drudgery life into this extraordinary, glamorous, sexy, vibrant unit”. Babych acknowledges that this exclusive focus on a large cast of women is a “very rare opportunity” in theatre, especially given that these actor-musicians play swing music, which is “usually associated with the likes of Glenn Miller and men”. More surprising, too, that a male playwright has, as Lyn Gardner observed, managed to capture a very real form of female dialogue. History is re-interpreted through the eyes of women.
“Here we have a snapshot of a bunch of women who were really making a mark of their own in wartime Britain,” Babych explains. “What you see is the strength of these women against all the odds in a male-dominated world, not surrendering to tragedy.” The celebratory tone was denounced by some London critics, who perceived the play as a nostalgia trip. “It’s been said of the piece that it doesn’t delve into the murkier side of the war and obviously there are plenty of plays that do that… Alan talks a lot about comedy being very close to tragedy but in the end it chooses to look the other way. And I think that’s what he’s written about – a bunch of people who, for the time being, choose to look away.” However, there remains a contextual “undercurrent” as a reminder of the contemporary suffering.
The play reveals Plater’s interest in the way in which music may act as a defining tool for a generation of people and an era. Babych delicately resists identifying the genre of Blonde Bombshells as a “musical”, but rather “a piece of music theatre”, in which music defines, rather than demonstrates, the characters. “What Alan’s written is how human beings can respond to [the war] through music, because that’s their chosen profession, that’s their chosen life.” Protagonist Betty has run the band single-handedly for ten years; music represents “her family; it’s her character; it’s her entire world.” Throughout the play, the audience observes the way in which music becomes integrated into the women’s sense of identity and self-esteem. Babych comments: “You can understand why the GIs and the soldiers went absolutely crazy for this bunch of women playing this music.” Equally, you can understand why audiences do. A cast of eight talented actor-musicians perform live such classic numbers as ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ and ‘T’aint What You Do’.
Babych explains his directorial responsibility as one of honouring both the music and the socio-historical context that roots it. “You’ve got to have a sensitivity to and a love of the music… It’s not our music…. It belongs to a generation and we’ve got to look after it.” But can young audiences still relate? Babych delightedly reports that the show enjoyed mixed aged audiences at Bolton, all equally overwhelmed by the musical performances and often incredulous at the live sound being created on stage. Quite simply, the experience of a live swing band “just blows people’s socks off”.
Blonde Bombshells has been a “labour of love” for Mark Babych and a self-confessed career highlight to date. With an early interest in visual art, numerous school trips to the theatre finally convinced the young director of a profession in the industry. In particular, Babych recalls a “seminal moment” watching Derek Jacobi play Benedict in the RSC’s Much Ado about Nothing at Stratford: “I didn’t think Shakespeare could be quite like that”, but the experience clearly provided profound inspiration. Despite initial ambitions to become an actor, Babych opted for a fourth-year Director’s course at the University of Kent, Canterbury, and has never looked back. With experience at Oldham Coliseum, Coventry’s Belgrade and Worcester Theatre Company, Babych became Artistic Director of the Octagon Theatre in 1999.
Besides beaming with pride at his Blonde Bombshells experience, Babych cites working on Arthur Miller as a career climax. “When you get into the rehearsal room with Arthur Miller you kind of feel like you’re in the ring with a big heavy weight… Great theatre always touches your moral, political and human sensibilities – great writing always does that.” As for Babych’s preferred form of theatre, he alludes to the ensemble model and loves the work ethic of a group of people coming together. The down-to-earth and democratic northerner perceives his artistic role as a “guide through the myriad of choices” in the collaborative process that is the “creation of company”. Unsurprisingly, he then lists Shared Experience and Told by an Idiot as his favourite companies, and admires Nick Hytner’s “really healthy” programme at the National, embracing diverse and different artists.
Babych clearly embraces difference and partnership, too. But does he notice a north/south divide in the theatre industry? Audiences are “definitely different… not better or worse – just different”. The capital’s detached audiences of industry people and tourists contrast sharply with Babych’s own Octagon audiences, who feel a “sense of pride in their local theatre”. The feeling is mutual. When Babych joined the Octagon in 1999, there was doubt over its future in producing theatre, but, having turned the situation around, he now displays enormous privilege at entering into the theatre’s fortieth anniversary year.
Babych is keen to stress that, for him, the Octagon is definitely “not a stepping stone to a future place”. The vibrant Artistic Director speaks with fervent praise for the “amazing”, “unique” theatre that he lovingly runs, so much so that he “can’t imagine a better space”.
Rhona Foulis © 2007
Originally published on R&V 16-01-07
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