Blonde Bombshells of 1943 – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 Review Stephen Joseph Theatre (2)

By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe, August 2023

There used to be a tradition at Stephen Joseph Theatre. As the play was about to start, the ushers would each stand at one of the auditorium doors and, in unison, close the black curtains with a dramatic flourish, signalling to the audience to be silent. For the production of Blonde Bombshells of 1943 the ritual is temporarily back, transporting the assembly to a Britain in blackout, ravaged by bomb damage and uncertainty.

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 is co-presented by Octagon Bolton, Theatre by the Lake, and Stephen Joseph Theatre, and was written by Alan Plater in 2004. Plater was born in Jarrow, but moved with his family to Hull when he was a small child. Hull suffered from a sustained campaign of aerial bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe during World War 2 that equalled those targeted at London and other big cities. The folk there showed true Yorkshire grit, finding a way to smile through the pain, rescuing the injured, lifting the rubble, burying the dead, caring for the homeless and bereaved, and keeping up morale with endless cups of tea, black humour, and live entertainment, yet, afterwards, not many mentioned the north in their heroes of the blitzes, or gave them any credit for their efforts. Plater was keenly aware of the discrepancy between the North-South divide and wrote not necessarily to achieve a completely rounded story or to affect a thrilling ending, but rather to allow the characters to have a voice and tell their own story.

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Blonde Bombshells of 1943 tells of one day in Elizabeth’s (Lauren Chinery) life; not a particularly life-changing day, but one from her teenage years that had vividly stuck in her memory and was recounted with joy to her granddaughter. It was the day in 1943 that she joined the band known as The Blonde Bombshells.

Betty (Georgina Field), the leader of the band which raises wartime morale, is auditioning for new members, because whenever they play at a venue where GIs are present, there is certain to be a musician lost to love, and now four players down, there is an urgency to recruit in time for the evening’s performance which is being recorded by the BBC, live from Hull. The candidates in front of her are a ukulele-playing nun, Lily (Gleanne Purcell-Brown), who has a mean repertoire of saucy George Formby songs, Elizabeth, an ingénue schoolgirl, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp member Miranda, who is far from innocent, and Patrick (Rory Gradon), who has dodged conscription and is the wrong sex. All are versatile, multi-talented musicians, and when a blond wig is found for Patrick, the gig can continue, even with a bomb sticking through the venue floor – carefully defused by Miranda, who has been on a course.

Through gentle vintage comedy, the relationships between the unlikely team are explored. Can the class divide be negotiated? Will Patrick need to shave his legs? Can the other members of the band – Grace (Alice McKenna), Vera (Sarah Groarke), and May (Verity Bajoria) come to accept Patrick’s cowardice when their own hearts are breaking from their wartime experiences? Elizabeth tastes romance but asks how they can still play on and make jokes amidst the bombs and destruction; a question Betty answers with the sobering, “We laugh to stop ourselves crying.”

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Director, Zoë Waterman, moves the action along at a finger-clicking pace, whilst Musical Director, Greg Last, and Movement Director, Sundeep Saini, deserve equal credit for their curation of songs and dance moves from the era, blending lyrical brass solos, swinging numbers and harmonies that conjure up the real emotional essence of the pieces. The actor-musicians are all stellar players, there is audience participation and foot-tapping aplenty, requests for encores, and a joy that seeps out into the auditorium.

The late Alan Plater summed up Blonde Bombshells of 1943 as “… a day-in-the-life piece about seven women and one man (who wears a frock some of the time) trying to become a band and play the popular music of the time.” It is certainly that and more. One day, when nothing dramatic happens and improbable friends are thrown together through circumstances; one day that had to be got through no matter what. One day that was followed by another one day, and then another, and another. That’s how the war was got through. And the culmination of those single, plodding days, ultimately brought those women who were there new opportunities, new skills, social freedoms, and financial independence.

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 is essentially a bildungsroman with fabulous music, overflowing with escapism, risqué jokes, gorgeous frocks, and utter exhilaration. It is a triumph for Northern theatre.

‘Blonde Bombshells of 1943’ is at Stephen Joseph Theatre until 26th August
images: Pamela Raith Photography


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