Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Theatre Review: Miss Atomic Bomb

Sometimes in theatreland it’s fun to go and see a show of which you have really low expectations.

It’s much more fun to go and see something that the critics hated and find you enjoy it rather than something the critics loved and you end up hating (Waste, for example).

Miss Atomic Bomb, a new musical by Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long (too many cooks?), is mercifully a case of the former. Given a fairly vicious savaging by most of the critics, the show tells the story of a small time Las Vegas hotel manager trying to cash in on the wave of tourism around the testing of atomic bombs in the Nevada desert by staging a beauty pageant. It tries to tell a lot of other stories too, and herein lies the problem.

Image source.

The issues this show has are all in the writing. Plot-wise it’s all over the place. What should be a simple and fun story with interesting historical context is weighed down with so many tangents, subplots and irrelevant throwaway characters that it quickly becomes very confused. The book, though it has its occasional comic flourish, tends towards the plodding. There is basically no attempt at character development - even the leads get only the most perfunctory backstory. The first act in particular would benefit from substantial cuts, both to the plot and the characters.

The songs fare better - they’re fun even if they’re not especially memorable - though the occasional one feels stylistically out of place and the lack of coherence in the characterisation and plot means that many of them feel out of place in the narrative too. The big production numbers of the second act suffer especially in this regard, jumping out of nowhere to play on facets of characters barely even hinted at previously. Whilst things do otherwise generally pick up in the second act (it feels much more coherent and sticks much more closely to a single plot) the segments aping Gypsy and, especially, Les Miserables are wholly unfunny, add nothing and don’t make a huge amount of sense.

For all that though I didn't hate this show and that’s because, if you ignore the shortcomings of the piece itself, the production is actually pretty good. Probably the star is Bill Deamer’s characteristically first rate choreography. In a show whose plot is so messy that almost everything feels like a production number, his choreography delivers the requisite glitz, glamour and sense of fun to make this work. The showgirl-heavy tap routines are particularly good. The use of video in place of scenery is effective too - I especially enjoyed the nuclear blasts, which is not a phrase I ever thought I’d write.

The hardworking cast also deserves substantial credit. Almost everyone does the best with what they've been given (I felt especially sorry for the ever vocally excellent Daniel Boys stuck with his second rate Javert) and there are a couple of performances which are genuinely very good. Simon Lipkin - an increasing favourite in these parts - in particular carries much of the show with a wonky charisma that is totally endearing and gives the whole proceeding a necessary touch of class. For the girls, it’s Florence Andrews who stands out with a gutsy performance and a gorgeous voice. Catherine Tate, the billed headliner, is a bit disappointing by her own standards (and the reviews were right about her wandering accent) but entertaining enough in what is a typically underdeveloped role.

In summary then: weak show, decent production. Does the latter outweigh the former? No, not quite but it’s still worth a look if you’re after something that’s just good, disposable, sparkly fun. I saw it on a Friday night after a longass week and it was perfect! There are some excellent deals on tickets around too, funnily enough.

Miss Atomic Bomb plays at the St James Theatre until 9th April.  

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