The First Night Feature: Blonde Bombshells of 1943

Published April 17, 2008

Based on his BAFTA award-winning The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells, which starred Dame Judi Dench, Ian Holm and Leslie Caron, Alan Pater’s stage version, Blonde Bombshells of 1943, swung its way into the Hampstead theatre last night and Kathryn Merritt was there to boogie woogie along with the rest of the first night audience.

With so many of Britain’s men off fighting during World War II, many women left behind on the ‘home front’ joined the work force, taking jobs that had once been open to men only. Others knew the importance of keeping up morale during this time of rationing, sacrifice and fear, and all-girl swing bands provided the perfect escapism for a country worn down by a relentless war.

On a dishevelled stage in a wartime theatre in the north of England, bandleader Betty (Elizabeth Marsh) is holding auditions for her own all-girl swing band. She’s already lost four members of her eight-piece band to “over-sexed, over-paid and over here” American GIs and the places need to be filled for a BBC radio broadcast that evening.

First on the audition list is Elizabeth (Karen Paullada), an innocent and naïve schoolgirl who plays a mean clarinet and has a sharp voice to match. Next is feisty Lily (Claire Storey), a ukulele-playing nun with a penchant for comical songs (even if she doesn’t get their bawdy humour). ‘Liz’ and the musical “penguin” wow Betty and her bandmates, May (Ruth Alexander-Rubin), Vera (Sarah Groarke) and Grace (Barbara Hockaday), with their unique musical talents and, with little time to spare, they are hired on the spot.

With two places left, time running out and air raids threatening, enter Miranda (Rosie Jenkins), a posher-than-posh musician/singer and military woman who doesn’t read music, hasn’t even heard of many of the popular songs and only attends the audition on the orders of her commanding officer. The final ‘bombshell’ to complete the band is not a woman at all, but war-dodger Patrick (Chris Grahamson), who is willing to don a frock, wig and teetering high heels to play his drums and keep out of the war.

With the rag-tag band complete, the Bombshells furiously rehearse and make it to Hull (which, for security reasons, can only be identified to BBC listeners as a “coastal town on the North of England”) for their broadcast. The Hampstead audience was transported with them for a rousing second half, filled with a toe-tapping selection of 40s classics, from Fats Waller to the Andrews Sisters to Glenn Miller. “Inside every woman is a blonde bombshell screaming to get out”, exclaimed Betty. And with the Hampstead audience cheering, singing and swinging along to the music, I think actually there is a blonde bombshell in all of us.

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 is on at the Hampstead until 12 August.

KM