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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /