EXURBERANCE, dollops of stoicism, and reconciliation all course through the veins of Blitz! – Lionel Bart’s 1961 musical that is getting a welcome airing at the Union Theatre in London. It is the second of three plays staged at the theatre this year to look at the role of the British in World War Two and ask the question: ‘How did we get here from there?’ (Tom Brown’s School Days was performed in January while Peace In Our Time runs from March 11).
While the answer to the question posed by the theatre’s director Phil Wilmott is worthy of academic work and night-long debate, what is indisputable is that the Union’s Blitz! is a marvellous revival that will leave you smiling and wiping away the occasional tear (I was a little choked by the end). The cast is terrific and seem to enjoy every minute on stage. Indeed, it’s all rather infectious. By the end, all I wanted to do was have an almighty knees-up at the Union Jack pub nearby and then cart-wheel my way back to Southwark tube station.
The play is based around the coming together of two East End families as they spend most of their nights sheltering from Hitler’s bombs in the bowels of Petticoat Lane tube station. At one end of the track are the Blitztein family, led with vigour by swashbuckling widow Mrs Blitztein (Jessica Martin) who makes a living from selling pickled herrings on the market. She has children (galore) and a mother to feed. Despite the obvious hardship, she is a welcoming, kindly individual who is always willing to serve up a bowl of chicken soup.
At the other end are Mr Locke (Michael Martin), his son George and grandad Ernie. Mr Locke, an air raid warden, is as racist as they come. Like Mrs Blitztein, he has a stall on the market, selling fruit and vegetables.
Yet for all the invective and bombs, there are connections between the two families that will not be severed. They stem primarily from the vigour of youth – namely the burgeoning relationship between Mr Locke’s war-bound son George (Connor Carson) and Mrs Blitztein’s daughter Carol (Caitlin Anderson) – and the friendship between George and the rebellious Harry (Mrs Blitztein’s son).
There are many twists and turns along the way – including war injuries, the evacuation of children to the countryside, encounters with married women (very risqué a la 1940s), betrayals and arrests. But it is the wedding bells that ring loudest, not once but twice. At the end of day, it is goodness and forgiveness that prevail.
The production is awash with joyous moments – the singing of Danniella Schindler (another daughter of Mrs Blitztein) and the wonderful enthusiasm of Beaux Harris as Elsie who has a ‘thing’ for Harry. At times, Harris twirls around the stage like a spinning top, has no compunction when it comes to removing most of her clothes, and throws herself at Harry like a speeding steam train. A joy to behold.
There’s more: the haughtiness of Eleanor Sandars as the strutting Joyce (Harry’s married lady friend), James Horne (Grandad Locke) delivering a radio speech as Winston Churchill, and of course the star of the show Jessica Martin as the indefatigable Jewish matriarch – Mrs Blitztein.
Throw in a barrowful of hearty songs – Vera Lynn’s The Day After Tomorrow, a riotous Who’s This Geezer Hitler? and the finale The Day After Tomorrow – and some enthusiastic dancing and you have all the ingredients for a fun night out. Better than a lot of the musical fare on the other side of the Thames.
Hats off to Wilmott and musical director Rosa Lennox. Let’s hope Peace In Our Times is in the same league.
Title photo by Mark Senior