BLITZ! at London's Union Theatre
The cast of Blitz! enjoying a great knees up: photo Mark Senior


Lionel Bart's follow up to Oliver!, based upon his own experiences as a child in the East End of London during WW11, arrives at London's Union Theatre. This is the second of the Essential Classics Season 2020 to celebrate VE Day 75 years on. Produced and presented by the Phil Wilmott Company, this rare revival of the musical Blitz! may be less lavish than the original but no matter. It succeeds on every level.

Blitz! is a celebration of 1940's London's working class spirit. Against the avalanche of bombs that were raining down on London, Mrs Blitztein, 'Queen of Petticoat Lane', Jewish matriarch and central fulcrum to the society that is located there, is determined to keep her family together, to uphold her Jewish culture and, above all, to not allow any of her neighbours or family to ever go hungry!

In the intimacy of this small London theatre Blitz! opens to the sound of air raid sirens as the locals meet at the shelter of Petticoat Lane underground station, where they are preparing to spend the night. Located close to Southwark Station the gentle rumbling of the Jubilee Line affords a realistic feature to this delightful production, adding an air of authenticity to the setting. With a rousing chorus of 'Our Hotel' the mood is set. This may be wartime but life must be enjoyed and Mrs Blitztein takes care to provide her delicious chicken soup, a panacea to all ills.

Directed by Phil Wilmott, this homage to VE Day is likewise a respectful acknowledgement to the talent of its creator, Lionel Bart. Through his score and lyrics, the stoicism and positivism of that generation who endured the endless tedium of fires, bombing and destruction is captured by the 17 strong cast. This is a company whose enthusiasm is infectious and their delight in performance is uplifting. Putting their best foot forward under the guided choreography of Daniel Maguire, the routines were charmingly played. Likewise, against the band of four musicians led by Musical Director Rosa Lennox, voices soared and harmonised achieving a Blitz! of which Bart would have been proud. 

We may recall numbers such as 'Mums and Dads','We're Going To The Country' and the number written by Bart for Vera Lynn, 'The Day After Tomorrow' but other numbers are not so familiar. How could they match up to the well remembered score of Oliver! But that is unfair. Listening to the raised voices of this exciting ensemble as they performed their first number 'Our Hotel' and subsequent songs the mood was established. This was going to be a night to remember, where we would soak up the nostalgia of those bygone days.

Based on his own wartime experiences and with his mother and the Jewish traditions in mind, Bart did not shy away from the conflict in culture between Jews and Gentiles during that period and acknowledged the differences. Strong words were exchanged on both sides, depicted in the flow of insults between Mrs Blitztein and her cor-blimey cockney neighbour, Mr Locke. Yet somehow they co-existed, despite their differences. Ever hopeful that her petty criminal son Harry and her beautiful daughter, Carol, would marry into the faith, Mrs Blitztein has moments of self doubts. Sure, the enforced evenings in the shelter bring together the two cultures but more so is the blossoming romance between their children, Carol and George. Yes, Romeo and Juliet comes to Petticoat Lane but unlike the Shakespearean tragedy, there is hope. The intensity and extent of change due to circumstances beyond their control changes life forever as those who emerge from and survive the blitz, wounded both physically and psychologically, face a new world and a new life.

In close proximity to this sumptuous cast who were clearly enjoying the magical experience of their performance, I am sure they soaked up the bonhomie of their audience. How could we fail to be captivated? With rousing voices and gleeful singing, they performed 'Who's This Geezer Hitler', 'Leave It To The Ladies', 'Is This Going To Be A Wedding' among many more. The effect was magical. Harmonies, smiles and endless energy were engaging and hats off to the talents of the ensemble. This may be a small theatre, and the production may not be as lavish as the original but it was an absolute delight to be so close to the performance and to share the closeness that must have formed during those raids. At one point air raid sirens, at another chit chat among the locals, this offered a realistic insight into the close knit community of the East End of London. For a couple of hours we could cast aside the modern day cynicism and embrace the stoicism and bravery of bygone days; the gung-ho approach to life that kept them going.

In her role as lynch pin Mrs Blitztein, Jessica Martin was sublime. Not only was Bart's mother a huge presence in her community but Martin was the central force of this production. Her performance exuded honesty, truthfulness and integrity through her words, her mannerisms and expression. She was in every way the Jewish Mama, leaving no doubt as to her importance and characterisation. Together with the hugely talented cast, all mutually supportive, the resultant was a refreshingly small scale production that ignored the tricks and tech of so many larger shows, yet achieved more in its honesty. As such the performance relied on the skills and talents of its players and they did not let us down. Their voices soared, their harmonies were exact  and the purity of their sound was prevalent, both in the combined ensemble and also in the numbers by Martin, Catlin Anderson and Beaux Harris.

Maybe Blitz! is dated, maybe it was always the runner up to Oliver! but this revival can hold its head up high as a hugely enjoyable and worthy nod to the excellence of Lionel Bart (with Joan Maitland) and to those brave souls of WW11.

And now I could really do with a bowl of Mrs Blitztein's magical chicken soup!


Listings

Union Theatre, Old Union Arches, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR
Tel: 020 7261 9876  uniontheatre.biz 
Playing until 7 March 2020.
Tuesday - Saturday evenings 7.30 pm
Matinees Saturday and Sunday 2.30 pm from 15 February 2020
Prices: Full price £22, concessions £20,under 18s £15
Unreserved seating