Blonde Bombshells of 1943 taps into the nostalgia for the Second World War with its lively and upbeat production at the newly refurbished Oldham Coliseum.
On the edge of town, the Oldham Coliseum is a gem that is squeezed between pubs and clubs in an unprepossessing side street. Yet it was bustling with theatregoers on the first night of the three-week run. In the second act, people were singing along and the audience were actively encouraged to sing along at one point with the help of cue cards.
Blonde Bombshells began life as a TV play written by the late Alan Plater in 1989. It evolved into the Last of the Blonde Bombshells, a 2000 film for TV starring Judi Dench and Ian Holm.
Ivy Benson’s all-woman BBC resident dance band in 1943 was the inspiration for the film, as she had a high turnover of band members when the women met US GIs and eloped. Benson once said: “One member of the band left the stage to go to the lavatory, and nobody has seen her since. She must have gone off with a GI.”
The play was revived in Bolton six years ago. At the time Plater spoke of his delight at “grey-haired members of the audience” singing along unbidden to songs like Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.
It’s difficult to pick out an individual actor from the eight-strong cast for praise, as they are all equally competent actors and clearly gifted musically. There are some great one liners and the humour is that of the music hall or of Coronation Street when the matriarch Elsie Tanner prowled the cobbles.
When upper-class Miranda (Suzi Power) explains that she got her name from a Shakespeare play, the other women mock about “I must tell our Shylock when we get home.” Later, when they talk of the costumes they will wear, Miranda becomes excited at the thought of wearing a dress by Norman Hartwell. She finds out it’s actually Gladys Hartnell “from Failsworth.”
Betty (Georgina White) is the band leader and has some of the best putdowns and takes no nonsense. Grace (Natasha White) is a talented musician and a jazz musician. Schoolgirl Liz is played wonderfully by Carla Freeman (who has an amazing voice) and the nun Katharine Moraz is played with comic gusto by Lily.
The only male character is played by Chris Grahamson, who is clearly a talented drummer.
Liz, Lily and Miranda front the fictional band as the Valentino Sisters. And they look as if they are thoroughly enjoying themselves when they are on stage.
Kevin Shaw, the director, said that auditions were more complicated than usual for Blonde Bombshells as all eight had to be able to act, sing and play a specific instrument including sax, clarinet, double bass, trumpet and piano.
At the end, when the band play for their performance in blonde wigs and pink dresses, I was reminded of the Sheila’s Wheels television adverts as the dresses were the same colour. But I think that Blonde Bombshells came first and that Sheila’s Wheels was copying them – a compliment, I feel.
A post-show discussion takes place at the theatre on May 2 and on April 24 there will be an in-conversation free talk with the Coliseum’s artistic director and chief executive, Kevin Shaw.
Review by Helen Carter
Where: Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Oldham
When: until May 4, 2013
More info: www.coliseum.org.uk, 0161 624 2829