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Production

Blonde Bombshells of 1943

Company

British Theatre Playhouse

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

30/10/2008

Time

7.30pm

Place

Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel

Rating

****

Golden Oldies

I'll have to apologise in advance for this review. You see, I know I'm supposed to be objectively assessing this show, lauding the high production values, praising the music, comedy and script - all of which are top-notch, I assure you.
But I'm just so intrigued by the cultural politics behind Blonde Bombshells that I simply have to write about it somewhere. The play revels in nostalgia so much that it glorifies an image of Britain that has very little to do with the world before us - a tactic I find dangerously escapist.

I'll give you a run-down of the story first. A young woman in contemporary dress begins the show by describing her grandmother's memory of a single, transformative day in her life. The scene then shifts to 1943, in the basement practice room of the Blonde Bombshells themselves; they're one of the many all-women music groups formed during World War II Britain to entertain the troops, and they're holding emergency auditions so they can make up the numbers for a big performance the same night. The grandmother - a gawkish schoolgirl named Liz - appears and wins their hearts with her clarinet; next there's a ukulele-playing nun, an upper-class female army driver who's dandy at trumpets, and last of all a male drummer who's so terrified of war that he's willing to disguise himself as a woman to escape enlistment.

There's loads of comedy - both wit and slapstick - as well as a line-up of lovely old songs and swinging instrumentals from the 30s and 40s - Gracie Fields, Glenn Miller and the like - all performed live by the actors themselves. There's also ancommendable Aristotelian unity of time and space in the craft of playwright Alan Plater, with the set only doing its 180-degree spin at the end of the play to reveal the army barracks stage where the girls bust out their final, triumphant brassy numbers, clad in crimson dresses and platinum blonde wigs.

It's fun, great fun. And yet it's all slightly distant. At first I wasn't sure what was bugging me - the fact that I occasionally couldn't hear what the actors were saying, or because I couldn't understand all the jokes? But eventually I realised it had something to do with the style of performance - the actors seemed ever-so-slightly removed from the passion of the piece, never communicating that sense of tension and trauma that'd come from living through a war. The band members spoke of the plight of their husbands, killed or imprisoned by the Axis, with the same grumpy bitterness with which you'd complain about chronic arthritis.

It was the same story with the comedy. Most actors seemed to be holding themselves back from reaching truly madcap levels of silliness, a quality that I'd thought would've been well suited to a play like this, chock-full of stereotypes. Rosie Jenkins, in particular, missed out on a chance to milk her character's Cambridge-educated hoity-toitiness towards new degrees of camp. Only one actress - Sarah Whittuck, as Lily the nun - really seemed to be into it, giving off a refreshing, engaging energy that connected with the audience.

I'd guessed that this might be a cultural thing - a case of British restraint contrasting with the burlesque tradition of Singapore comedy. Our heritage of laughter comes from rough theatre, with all its exaggerated movements: Chinese opera, bangsawan and the amateur pantomimes of homesick soldiers and expatriates. Even today, our audiences still cheer for cabaret acts like Kumar or The Dim Sum Dollies, as well as farcical satires like the Chestnuts series. What's good to the Brits mightn't seem as sweet to a Singapore viewer.

But then I found out that the director of this play, "Richard Denning", is simply the British Actors' Equity name of the producer, John Faulkner - a man who's been here long ago enough to co-found LaSalle School of the Arts with Brother Joseph McNally. And despite Faulker/Denning's impressive West End experience, it's hard to believe that the culture of Singapore comedy hasn't touched him in some way.
Which brings us to a trivial question I've been puzzling over: should we judge British Theatre Playhouse as British or Singaporean? It's a company operating out of Singapore and staffed by Singapore residents, ergo it's part of our local theatre scene. Yet it consistently imports all its scripts and actors directly from the UK - something that comparable theatre companies like Sing'Theatre and the Stage Club don't do.

I say this is a trivial question because ultimately the binary is false: British Theatre Playhouse is both British and Singaporean, as is proven by the mixed crowd of audience members each night. And I'm glad about this: I believe it's good for our theatre scene to have variety, both to enrich itself and to educate audiences on the greater world of theatre out there.

What I'm bugged by is the way the company thrives off nostalgia. Sure, it's a blessing that the producers haven't limited themselves to the ancient imperial staples of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, expanding their repertoire to include more contemporary playwrights like Alan Ayckbourn, Jim Cartwright and now Alan Plater.
But the Britain we see in British Theatre Playhouse plays bears no resemblance to the multi-ethnic, multi-sexual Britain we actually encounter when we visit. Instead, it's an antique construct of feisty women telling dirty jokes and playing saxophones while their neighbours get bombed into mincemeat. It's a proud portrait of glorious Britannia under attack, fighting the good fight against the Hun. Given that I'm in a former British colony and that the UK actually is currently involved in a questionable war in Iraq, I'm wary of joining in the tub-thumpery.

You're probably going to object that British Theatre Playhouse had no intent to be political when they chose to perform Blonde Bombshells. True enough, but there's plenty of politics even in the simple act of entertainment. Look at the grand finale, as the girls perform in full regalia to the stationed soldiers in the barracks. The places of the soldiers are conveniently occupied by us, the audience members. We are the servicemen being honoured; we are the ones sent off to fight in Normandy or the Eastern colonies - either because we're expatriates on behalf of Britain, or because we're her cultural exiles, always dreaming about a gilded country to which we're never able to belong.

I'd like to reiterate at this point that I think British Theatre Playhouse did a bloody fine job with Blonde Bombshells, and they'll serve their present audience well if they continue staging plays in the same vein in the future. What I'm fundamentally uneasy about is the use of nostalgia in theatre: you can employ it to provoke new thoughts and ideas, or to make one feel good about oneself. And in my opinion, it's an insult to drama to have it become just a tool for escapism.

So here's my request to the company. Since you're always bringing in plays from Britain, let's make at least one of them a modern one. It doesn't have to be conceptual or experimental - there are other groups who can stage Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane - and it should certainly still be funny and with broad appeal. I'd just like it to describe some of the cultural complexity of the UK today, the very stuff that makes the country vibrant and wonderful.

We're not living in the 40s anymore, after all. We look back only to understand the way forward.

First Impression

As expected, Blonde Bombshells hits the high notes with its witty script, solid production values and fine music. It's a nostalgia-fest of rare proportions as the singer-actor-musicians belt out oldies by Gracie Fields, Glenn Miller and the like, all the while playing classic stereotypes of prissy Oxford women, gawkish schoolgirls and jaded dames, united in shaking their fists against the German bombardment of Britain. And yet there's a sense that the actors could push themselves a little further - be less distant from the audience (and more audible with their jokes), ham up their parts in places, better communicate that sense of tension and trauma that belongs in a war piece. Special mention should go to Sarah Whittuck: as Lily the nun, she charms our pants off with a peppy, upbeat performance that lifts the mood of the piece as soon as she steps on stage.


"It's fun, great fun. And yet it's all slightly distant."

Credits

Director: Richard Denning

Original Musical Director and Musical Arrangements: Howard Grey

Playwright: Alan Plater

Company Stage Manager: Naomi Hill

Deputy Stage Manager: Cheryl Harriman

Assistant Stage Managers: Richard Chenery and Jessica Liu Pei Xian

Producers: John Faulker and Cecilia Leong-Faulkner

Production Designer: Leo Lei Yu

Lighting Designer: Kailash

Original Sound Designer: Charlie Brown

Production Sound Designer: Sandra Tay

Production Musical Supervision and Musical Staging: Barbara Hockaday

Stage Assistant: Shi Zi Hui

Set Construction and Painting: Media Construction and Trading

Costumes: Cosprop London

Wigs: Felicite Gillham

Wig Dresser: Pauline Tan

Cast: Karen Paullada, Allison Harding, Susie Emmett, Jane Milligan, Barbara Hockaday, Sarah Whittuck, Rosie Jenkins and Oliver Chopping

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.