Miss Nightingale presents a dilemma as a reviewer – are you considering the work in isolation or the full experience? It makes me extra grateful for cases like this that I don’t have to agonise over a star rating as though the musical itself is very wobbly, it can’t be denied the show is a good night out. This is its potential break, Matthew Bugg (who writes, directs and takes a walk-on turn as Harry) having debuted the Second World War triple-threat at The Vaults last year. And it’s a perfect fit for the theatre at the Hippodrome, you feel positively decadently debonair seated at one of the tables in its auditorium whilst roulettes spin just outside the door. Yet, if Miss Nightingale is going to sparkle in the west end, it really needs to give its rhinestones a bit of a polish.
With more than a hint of Cabaret, Maggie (Lauren Chinery) is the star of the Cockpit club with her bawdy songs and wartime spirit. Despite being the name in lights, Maggie is a secondary story to that of her flatmate, Polish Jewish refugee George’s (Matther Floyd Jones) burgeoning romance with Sir. Frank (Oliver Mawdsley), owner of the club and closeted war hero.
The men (literally) dance around each other like the elaborate courtship of exotic birds, their opening number ‘Cruising’ a dark ballad of the dangerous world 1940s London could be for a gay man. Floyd Jones is sodding marvellous: his George is wounded and vulnerable, spiky and resilient. He exudes the wild abandon of sexual liberation of Berlin in ‘Meine Liebe Berlin’, channelling his inner Liza Minelli straddling a straight-back chair. In less capable hands, it could have been a weak impression of the original but Floyd Jones makes it inarguably his.
The issue lies in that Miss Nightingale frequently feels like two shows smushed together, one distinctly more sophisticated than other. There is ability here (how anyone succeeds in this industry where it now seems commonplace to be required to play three instruments, tap dance and sing never fails to impress me) but there is plenty of weakness. Adam Langstaff is excellent on the drums but makes a shouting pantomime of Maggie’s villainous lover Tom. Chinery is strangely flat as Maggie, there is little enticement or charm in her Cockpit turns, not helped by John M’s tatty looking costumes. It looks like all the budget was spent on the dudes who look spiffingly sartorial as poor Chinery dons yet another badly sequinned number. Carla Goodman’s design could also do with a hefty injection of magic, the stage-within-a-stage looks cheap – and with the Hippodrome theatre space feeling so perfect for the show, you question why have it at all?
Frank and George’s story gets all the best songs and the all the shades of light and dark. Frank’s solo ‘Mister Nightingale’ is genuinely heart touching as the character’s reserved nature and shyness are not lost in the swell of the torch song. In contrast ‘Maggie’s’ musical repertoire of ‘booze, boys and a bag of chips’ is pretty damn cringeworthy. The greeting-card-esque rhyming, the ‘whoopsie Daisy-my old mans a dustman’ delivery more Victorian music hall that troops’ sweetheart. Only the ‘Sausage Song’ hits the mark with regards to comedy, especially with Chinery’s improvisation that gets the biggest laugh of the evening.
Chinery is given a few slower numbers but these are flirted with and quickly cut off. Therefore, the proclaimed Nightingale never gets shown in full throat. Only at the finale do we get a taster of her ability. Otherwise, as observed by Frank, it is actually the male birds that sing.
Miss Nightingale is on at London Hippodrome until 6th May 2018.